Partnering with police to provide comfort for traumatized kids

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Everyone suffers through varying degrees of trauma over the course of their lives. Many of the most significant traumatic events require assistance from those trained to respond first to the scene of an emergency.

First responders have many tools for providing assistance  during tragedies.Officers with the Black Mountain Police Department can now offer children involved in traumatic situations some comfort, thanks to the efforts of a local woman.

Black Mountain Police officer Chris Craig keeps the blue comfort bag assigned to him in his vehicle in case he encounters a child in a traumatic situation.

Michelle Rhoten's desire to help began long before she moved to Black Mountain about 18 months ago. It was sparked by something she read.

“Years ago I read this story about a woman who put together 'comfort bags' for foster children,” Rhoten said. “They were duffle bags, and each one had a teddy bear, a book, a blanket, and it provided them with something to use to carry their clothes.”

Rhoten stowed the idea in the back of her mind, unable to find the time to implement a similar endeavor of her own.

“Since we’ve been in Black Mountain I’ve had plenty of extra time,” she said. “I thought ‘well, if this is going to be our forever home, I’d like to find a way to give back to the community.’”

Connecting with someone plugged into the foster care system was difficult, she said. But she was inspired to provide support for another group of children.

“My brother was a career policeman in California,” Rhoten said. “I began to think ‘we need to start doing something to help better connect the police with the community.’”

Rhoten approached Black Mountain Police Lt. Rob Austin. She arranged a meeting with Austin and Chief Shawn Freeman, hoping to find a way to get the bags  into the hands of those who could use them.

She presented the idea as a means of comforting children being removed from their homes. Freeman envisioned the bags as something that could help a wider range of kids.

“Luckily, in our town, we don’t have to remove kids from their homes very often,” Freeman said. “But, we do see children in the midst of traumatic situations regularly.”

The department was more than willing to accept Rhoten’s offer to provide the bags, the chief said. “These are the kinds of community partnerships we’re always looking for,” he said.

The situation felt as though it was coordinated through a higher power, Rhoten said. The thought of helping children undergoing stress hadn't occurred to her.

“Once the chief started talking about it, I just knew that I wanted to help," she said. "It wasn’t a brilliant idea that I had. I feel like there was divine intervention that led me to do this.”

Rhoten quickly made seven bags out of fleece no-sew blankets and filled them with teddy bears, coloring books and crayons. Her larger goal was to provide enough bags to equip each police vehicle.

She later found that nonwoven bags with drawstrings would be more practical. A friend of Rhoten’s volunteered to order the bags.

Twenty bags, each displaying colorful cartoon characters across them, were filled with stuffed animals and coloring books.

“Every officer has at least one bag in their car,” Freeman said. “We wanted to make sure that our patrol officers, who are more likely to encounter traffic accidents or traumatic injuries, would have a couple in their vehicles. They’ve all been issued these bags for their vehicles.”

Though Rhoten will likely never witness the bags she provided bring comfort to children, she has given the department a useful tool, Freeman said.

“When we show up, it’s typically not a good situation,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have people who are willing to find a way to do something to try to ease the burden for the kids involved.”

“I felt like this was something I was supposed to do,” Rhoten said. “It makes me grateful that I had the opportunity.”