SUNNYSIDE — A suitcase embodies an essential anthology of personal belongings, to be carried forward on the journey from one place to another – safeguarding the passage of time while embarking upon a new beginning.
The ability to unlock the meaning from a youthful piece of baggage has guided Val Mendoza, Heritage University senior and working adult, to establish “Suitcases for Children,” a donation drive to benefit foster children in Yakima County.
The undergraduate and social work major said he is working on his practicum project at Fostering Solutions in Yakima where he is also a case aide for the private and for-profit, faith-based placement organization serving children with licensed care.
“The whole idea of this project is to look at social issues in our community and what are some things we can do to address these issues,” Mendoza stated while describing how he approached the assignment with a narrow field of perspective and from his role with a previous employer.
The former youth partner in Washington State’s Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe) program, helped to provide support and services in assisting youth and families for achieving behavioral wellness and safety as the experience left behind a powerful impression, he said.
“I remember this specific situation where there was a youth transported and he happened to carry his belongings in trash bags. And, it really struck me and I couldn’t understand that how we have the foster care system but yet we kind of just allow them, I guess, in a sense to pick-up their personal belongings and put them in trash bags,” Mendoza jadedly recalled.
“And I saw first-hand the look – he had a very awful moment at the fact he was being placed in a different home in a very limited amount of time and to put everything into trash bags and to drop them off at a DCYF (Department of Children Youth and their Families) office across the state, didn’t set well with me.” he candidly expressed.
The 35-year-old Sunnyside resident said he empathizes with foster children and their uphill plight because he was once an at-risk youth involved in the juvenile detention system during his teenage years.
He hopes to use his turbulent background to be better connected with young people, helping him to make a positive difference in their lives.
As part of his Suitcases for Foster Children project, which will stop receiving donations in the first week of November, Mendoza was required to write an in-depth report addressing his expectations or fears about undertaking the community awareness program.
“I felt like we can’t lose anything by creating awareness. Even if we collect only one bag, that’s one more than what we initially started with,” he declared. “The response has been way more than what I anticipated, and I am so grateful at the fact people are getting involved.”
When Mendoza was 16 years old, he remembered what it was like being “stuck” in a juvenile institution for one year and then later transferred to Juvenile Offender Basic Training Camp in Connell to complete the last four months.
There was a case manager named Mrs. Berry, who would have a long-lasting impression on him much later in life, encouraging the young adult to pursue his dream of going to school with a goal of becoming a social worker, which he enacted four years ago.
“She was one of those women that just could not let off of you. Always praising you with words of affirmation and filling up your bucket with total positivity. And I remembered being like, ‘Look, Mrs. Berry, I need you to walk off a short bridge here because it’s not going to work,’” Mendoza appreciatively communicated.
Mendoza’s social worker was very persistent in delivering the in-person and hopeful message of “You’re meant for more,” and “Current circumstances don’t really make up your future.” These words traveled into one ear and out the other at the time, according to the Mendoza.
“Those words stayed with me and I didn’t realize it until I had a conversation with a friend of mine right before I made the commitment of going to school,” he keenly conveyed with a grateful voice. “I’ve been trying to find this woman on social media… Just to thank her and to tell her that she made an impact upon my life… She really cared. She cared a lot.”