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These kids in juvenile detention are making a difference, one stuffed animal at a time

A child in the Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility checks a monkey they stuffed for a comfort kit. The kits — which contain a stuffed animal, a birth certificate, book and crisis info for parents — will be given to police officers to distribute to children in stressful situations.
A child in the Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility checks a monkey they stuffed for a comfort kit. The kits — which contain a stuffed animal, a birth certificate, book and crisis info for parents — will be given to police officers to distribute to children in stressful situations. The Wichita Eagle

Single file, a group of kids in the Sedgwick County Juvenile Delinquent Facility walked into a small classroom in the heart of the jail. Boxes of stuffing, children's books and empty plush animal shells awaited them.

These books and stuffed animals aren't for them, though.

Becky Springer, volunteer coordinator at United Way of the Plains, asked them if they have ever volunteered. A few said they've mowed neighbors' yards, or done community service as part of previous probation, but beyond that, not much.

Springer told them that no matter their previous experience, from now on they all will be able to proudly say the helped serve their communities.

The kids were a bit shy at first, but soon dove into the books and started stuffing the animals.

Joined by volunteers from IMA Financial Group and Sedgwick County Sheriff Deputy Aaron Miller on Wednesday afternoon, the group used the materials to make comfort kits that area law enforcement can hand out to children in difficult situations, such as house fires, car accidents or at court during divorce cases.

The kids also filled in "birth certificates" for the stuffed animals. These included a name (chosen by the kit's maker, of course), the date of birth and the first name of the maker. One line was left blank for the stuffed toy's future owner to fill in their name.

Some kids in the detention center chose stuffed animal names with personal significance, others chose names on a whim. One stuffed bear was named Oso. Another was named Princeton. One of the kids joked that he would name his stuffed lion after Deputy Miller.

"It's fun, and I'm helping out other kids," the kid said of the activity.

For the most part, the children who receive the kits will never know who made them , or what their situation was, Miller said.

"Making these kits gives them a sense of purpose and pride knowing they can give back to the community despite being inside the detention facility," Miller said.

Graciela Santiago, senior independent living trainer at the facility, supervised the kids and helped put together kits. She said that when Springer approached her about making kits, she jumped on the opportunity.

"It’s a great opportunity for the kids to have a positive interaction with law enforcement and be able to see that they are able to do something other than get in trouble, and give back to the community," Santiago said. "It’s not something they really ever see that they can do, so I wanted them to have that opportunity."

The kit-making sessions will continue through the week, with members of the Wichita Police Department also coming by to help and to take kits for police vehicles. All of the facilty's 52 children, ranging between 10 and 17 years old, will have the chance to make a kit.

"The kids, they’re all in here for a reason," Santiago said. "But we all believe that everyone should have the opportunity to give back to the community and see that no matter what they’re in here for, they can give back. We want to see them succeed, and we want the community to see that these are kids, and they deserve a second chance."

The IMA volunteers said they hope that others will come forward to also volunteer their time with the children in the juvenile detention facility.

"It doesn't have to be a huge time commitment or huge project, per se," Becky Hammeke, claims account executive at IMA, said. "Just a couple of hours with kids that need to be encouraged."

The kits also include a card advertising United Way's 211 service for families who may need help connecting to human services agencies during traumatic experiences.

The stuffed animal shells were provided through a grant that United Way received, and Spirit Aerosystems provided stuffing. Springer will return to the facility over the next few months to hopes help make 430 kits.

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