When Annie Wignall of Newton, Iowa (pop. 15,559), was 11 years old, her mother said something that made a powerful impression on her. Cathy Wignall, who works as a child abuse prevention educator, told her daughter that sometimes kids in crisis situations have to leave their homes without taking any of their belongings with them, not even a toothbrush.
"I started thinking about how hard that would be," recalls Annie, now 16. "That’s when I had the idea of filling fabric bags with essential and comforting items that would be helpful to kids in situations like that. Inside I put things like new packages of toothpaste, soap, books and stuffed animals."
Annie and her mother contacted the state Department of Human Services office and told them about Annie’s idea. After getting an enthusiastic response and an agreement to distribute the bags to needy children, Annie went to local stores and asked for donations for her project.
Annie’s simple act of kindness quickly snowballed as other people began to get excited about her project. Volunteers started sewing cloth bags to hold the supplies. Donations of supplies and money poured in. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack gave Annie an award for her charitable work, and word about her project spread through newspaper articles.
Five years later, Annie’s project has grown into the non-profit Care Bags Foundation, a national movement that has brightened the lives of more than 8,000 displaced, abused and disadvantaged children. Staffed entirely by volunteers, the foundation is directed by Annie with the assistance of her mother.
Hundreds of people keep the foundation flourishing. Some sew bags, bibs and blankets, while others donate time at the foundation’s headquarters in Newton, where supplies are stored and bags are filled and shipped to distributing agencies. In addition, more than 50 similar projects have been started around the world by people who were inspired by Annie’s efforts. Thanks to Airline Ambassadors International and other overseas aid organizations, Care Bags have been sent to countries that include South Africa, Bolivia and India, as well as to areas devastated by the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia.
Capt. Peter Kenah, a firefighter from Butler, N.J. (pop. 7,420), first heard about Annie’s project in 2001. He was inspired to deliver Care Bags to some of the children of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and now serves on the foundation’s board of directors and coordinates bag donations in New Jersey.
"I saw what an 11-year-old can do, and that gave me the push I needed to do something to help too," Kenah says.
Annie’s example is particularly inspiring to other youth. In San Francisco, for example, the Tremors Youth Synchronized Ice Skating Team has spent several months raising money for the purchase of Care Bags supplies.
"Annie is a terrific role model for my 11-year-old daughter and her teammates," says Mareen Harper, one of the organizers of the fund-raising effort. "They’re proud to raise money to buy the things she needs to fill her Care Bags."
Despite receiving considerable national recognition for her efforts (including being honored by Teen Magazine last year as a "top teen making a difference"), Annie’s life in Newton is in many ways similar to that of any busy high school junior. She’s involved in many extracurricular activities, including soccer, band and theater, but she has the added satisfaction of knowing that she is making a big difference in the world.
"Growing up, my parents always stressed to my brother and sister and me the importance of volunteering," she says. "I think it’s important to choose something that you enjoy doing. Care Bags gives me the chance to do what I love, which is helping children."
Julie Dyer, who has started a similar program for foster children in Ashland, Ohio, puts it this way: "Annie teaches us that we can all make a difference in the lives of others through acts of kindness, no matter how large or small."
For more information, log on to www.carebags4kids.org.