After the news broke that 5-year-old AJ Freund was found dead in a shallow grove last week in Woodstock, Alicia Wehby of Crystal Lake said she felt helpless.
In response to the tragedy, Wehby – a mother of four children, including three former foster children whom she adopted – said she reached out to the Let It Be Us foster care organization in Barrington to see if she could organize a charity drive.
On Sunday, Wehby co-created a Facebook group for “Stuff the Duffel,” which she had expected to be a small community collection effort to gather provisions for foster children being placed into a new home.
“Kids entering foster care often arrive without any of their belongings or basic necessities,” a flyer on the Facebook page reads. “Our goal is to provide every child entering foster care with a new duffel bag filled with all the necessities they may need to transition to their foster home.”
Within 24 hours, community interest in the project took off.
By Monday afternoon, Wehby said more than 900 people joined the page, and her initial post on the project was shared more than 1,000 times.
“As a community, this is helping everyone heal,” Wehby said. “We’re making [people] feel better by shopping for someone else.”
A number of area businesses and school districts are serving as dropoff locations until the cutoff date for donations of May 20. Wehby said she has eight people in a group text who will collect donated items and store them in a warehouse she secured for the project on Sunday.
“We are definitely not lacking help,” Wehby said.
Larry Swanson, co-owner of Country Donuts – one of the many dropoff locations in Crystal Lake – said the response to the project has been great and the collection bins at the front of the store were already filled four times by Monday afternoon.
Duffel bags are being packed for three age groups: babies, children and teenagers. Wehby said she hopes to include a blanket in every one of the duffel bags.
Items sought for baby duffel bags include diapers, baby cloths, rattles, teething toys and pacifiers.
Items for child duffel bags include stuffed animals, books, small toys, coloring books and crayons, underwear, socks and pajamas.
Items for teen duffel bags include water bottles, writing utensils, notebooks and journals, school supplies, underwear, socks, blankets, pillows and toiletries such as deodorant and face wash.
New and gently used backpacks also are appreciated.
Wehby said she has been in contact with potential donors from as far away as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
“And I thought Joliet was far away,” she said.
At the end of the collection efforts, Wehby said she will be seeking volunteers to help pack the duffel bags at the warehouse, which will then go to Let It Be Us. To volunteer for this part of the project, visit the Stuff the Duffel Facebook page.
Wehby said the warehouse is available to her until the end of May, but she will have some leniency if the number of donations exceeds expectations.
Because she estimates to surpass what Let It Be Us can house once the duffel bags are delivered, Wehby said any overflow will be distributed to other foster care agencies in the state.
Where to donate
Stuff the Duffel dropoff locations in McHenry County (visit the "Stuff the Duffel" Facebook page for a full list of dropoff locations):
Country Donuts, 181 Virginia Road, Crystal Lake
Out of the Box, 71 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake
Wear Did U Get That, 66 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake
Bruggeman Dentistry, 17 S. Virginia Road, Suite 2, Crystal Lake
Lewke Partners Real Estate, 43 E. Crystal Lake Ave., Crystal Lake
PWC Chiropractic, 411 Congress Parkway, Suite C, Crystal Lake
The Home Depot, 4447 Route 14, Crystal Lake
Arctic Heating and Cooling, 111 Erick St., Suite 120, Crystal Lake
Rock N Grill, 335 N. Randall Road, Lake in the Hills
Salon NV, 10416 Route 47, Huntley
Cary-Grove Performing Arts Centre, 21 Jandus Road, evening and weekend mornings only, Cary
St. Barnabas Lutheran Church, 8901 Cary Algonquin Road, Cary
Allstate, 395 Cary Algonquin Road, Suite F, Cary
Empowher Boutique, 129 Van Buren St., Woodstock
Woodstock Heating Company, 725 Wicker St., Woodstock
Casting Whimsy Tea, 203 Main St., Woodstock
Moonstone Wellness Studio, 116.5 E. Calhoun St., Woodstock
Athletico Physical Therapy, 113 S. Eastwood Drive, Woodstock
Salon Zara, 2773 W. Algonquin Road, Algonquin
Orangetheory Fitness Algonquin, 1624 S. Randall Road, Algonquin
Active Family Chiropractic, 1455 Merchant Drive, Algonquin
Speckled Sunshine, 124 S. Main St., Algonquin
Hair For You Salon and Spa, 3424 W. Elm St., McHenry
Elm Street Chiropractic, 4921 W. Elm St., McHenry
Glo-Bowl Fun Center, 101 Franks Road, Marengo