Surrounded by a loving family with pets to dote on, friends and activities to enjoy and a bright future ahead of her, 15-year-old Stephanie Risner can't imagine being homeless or a victim of abuse.
Yet, for the sake of the 400-plus teens and children she's helped over the past year-and-a-half, she thinks about those possibilities on a regular basis.
With an increasing number of children in need of services from various local agencies, support for Stephanie's "Youth Survival Backpacks" is at an all time high.
The program is always in need of basic supplies like shampoo and body wash as well as cash or gift card donations to purchase supplies to fill the backpacks. Aluminum cans are also accepted as a means of funding the project.
Cash, material donations or cans, with a note designated to "Youth Survival Backpacks," can also be taken to the following sites:
Girl Scouts of Winema,
2001 North Keene Way, Medford
Children's Advocacy Center,
816 West 10th Street, Medford
Stephanie was recently awarded local and regional Soroptimist Violet Richardson awards, geared at honoring young women ages 14 to 17 for making a difference in their community. The Central Point teen spends much of her time maintaining a program she founded during her eighth grade year to provide "survival bags" to kids who've fallen victim to physical and sexual abuse.
The backpacks, provided through the Children's Advocacy Center in Medford, give kids facing the toughest times of their young lives a ready supply of personal items ranging from toothbrushs and bath items to journals, flashlights, lotions, socks and stuffed animals.
"I tried to think, if I was suddenly homeless, what would I wish that I had," says the soon to be sophomore.
While she started the project in the fall of 2006 as a way of earning a Girl Scout service award, Stephanie's mom, Vicki, says she had a hunch that her daughter, who "never does anything small," would have a hard time calling it quits.
To fund her project, Stephanie set out to collect aluminum cans to fund her project and fabric from which she'd create bags to fill with full-sized products and all the things she assumed she'd want if she suddenly found herself homeless.
With the hard-earned service award in hand months later, she proved her mother right and continued on.
Her "survival bags" and their contents have grown exponentially. Filled with $60 or more worth of goodies, the packs, age appropriate and filled to the brim, include everything from shampoo, body wash, deodorant and games to night lights, puzzle books, stuffed animals, gloves, hats and flashlights.
Children's Advocacy Center nurse Linda VanBuskirk, says advocacy center supporters refer to Stephanie as their "little angel" and without the teen's efforts, there would simply be no backpacks.
"It's really touching to see them get their backpacks. Sometimes they'll open them up and think they have to pick one thing out, then when you tell them the whole backpack is for them their whole face lights up." VanBuskirk says the bags could not be better packed.
"Stephanie has thought of absolutely everything. She puts umbrellas in there, sunscreen, hats and mittens"¦ After the medical examination, which can be difficult, it's really nice to be able to give them this wonderful backpack full of goodies," VanBuskirk says.
"Before Stephanie's project, we at the advocacy center would kind of try to put things together or ask the community for donations at Christmas time, but it was nothing compared to the backpacks from Stephanie."
Initially, VanBuskirk says, Stephanie's backpacks were given to teens who had been physically and sexually abused, though the need has expanded and now young children and pre-teens receive the bags. Occasionally, a bag will be requested by local authorities for families suddenly displaced by a fire or other emergency.
While her family's garage dedicates a full corner for the supplies that go into Stephanie's backpacks, aluminum cans line a backyard wall and a camping trailer is brimming with spare backpacks, the teen says she isn't sure if a project like hers has a stopping point. Long term, she'd like to see the project initiated in other communities.
"Until there's not a need is probably how long I should do it," she says. "Which means, sadly, that I'm going to be doing this for a very long, long time."
The Soroptimist award was appreciated but her real reward is in stories from "Nurse Linda" and the occasional encounter with a backpack recipient.
"It's mostly anonymous but I've had a chance to meet a few girls before and I was really touched by their bravery," Stephanie says. "I think what keeps me doing this is that I hope that they know, somewhere, another girl is thinking of them and that she cares."