The year was 2007, and Robin Miller sat in a living room watching TV. It was December, a time for family and friends, but the teenage girl sat in a chair isolated and alone, wondering what her life would be like without the safety net of foster care. The 18-year-old had aged out of the system, and admitted to being both “excited and scared.” The look of uncertainty on her face was captured by photographer Mike Stocker for a story written by Mike Mayo of the Sun-Sentinel. It was titled, “Her Independence Day.”
After reading the story, Weston high school freshman Alexandra “Alex” Rubin contacted ChildNet, Broward County’s foster care agency, to see how she could help. The answer was unexpected, but poignant. She was told teens aging out of foster care needed luggage or duffle bags so they could leave with dignity, and not resort to putting their belongings in trash bags.
She called three freshman friends, Ilana Wolpert, Alli Weiss, and Alexandra Kaplan. Each attended a different school, but all shared the same caring spirit. Out of their bond Project 1841 was created. The “18” was for 18 year-olds, “4” recognized the group’s four female members, and the “1” stood for one cause—to help foster teens transition into independence. As seniors, the founder received three Miami Herald Silver Knights Awards for community service.
After months of fundraising to buy essentials, members of 1841 delivered its first set of duffle bags to ChildNet in April 2008. Each was packed with a bed pillow and pillowcase, a towel, washcloth, toiletries, household items, snack bags, and a personalized birthday card wishing each teen a bright and successful future.
Kaydion Watson, the aftercare supervisor at ChildNet, called Project 1841 a “phenomenal source of support” and said the duffle bags tagged and delivered to the agency are extremely important. “It’s more than a goodwill gesture because it enhances their self-worth during a very difficult time of transition,” he said. “As trivial as a duffle bag may seem to some, it’s likely the first tangible, practical item they’ve ever owned.”
“We are a non-profit resource arm of ChildNet, and work in conjunction with the agency’s Independent Living Department,” said Dori Kaplan, mother of co-founder Alexandra, and program advisor. “I’m proud that in some small way we’ve been able to help, but I’m even prouder that 1841 is still going strong 10 year after it was founded.”
When members leave the group after four years, others wait in the wings. “This was such a great cause that when the original members left we didn’t want to see the program end,” Kaplan said. The torch was then passed to Kaplan’s daughter, Caroline and three of her friends formed the second generation of Project 1841. When it was their time, Kaplan’s niece, Amanda Richard and three of her friends ushered in the third generation. The fourth generation of Lexis Ofstein, Andrea Hengber, Sami Ofstein, and Julia Glacer are all students at Stoneman Douglas High School—the first time all four members have been from the same school.
Lexi, now a senior will have her spot filled by her younger sister. “I’m excited she’s getting involved because this is a terrific program,” Ofstein said. “It taught me to see the world with a different point of view, and not take the little things for granted.” She recently attended graduation ceremonies for many of the foster care teens she and her group had helped. “The smiles on their faces were genuine appreciation,” she said. “It really made me realize that small bags of basic necessities can make a huge difference in someone’s life.”
All the donated items are stored at the Kaplan home and once a month Project 1841 members gather to prepare the bags. The group is provided the first names of those that are to age out the following month. “We appreciate the generous donations that make these purchases possible,” Kaplan said. “Without the community’s support this program would not be what it is today.”
At any given time, about 600 youths between 18 and 23 will have exited foster care in Broward County, and another 120 are getting prepared to transition out on their own. Kaplan said that members of Project 1841 prepared more than 1,000 bags since the program began. “With the starter kits, there’s also a lot of hugs, words of encouragement, and best wishes for the next chapter of their lives,” Kaplan added. “We hope to inspire others from different counties or even other states to find out how they can help foster teens who age out in their communities.”
In a world of daily news cycles that are filled with anxiety, stories of good people doing great things are refreshing. Four generations of Project 1841 is a shining example.