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June 1, 2002

Girl Power

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Aubyn, 15, launched Suitcases for Kids at age 9.

Mission: To provide suitcases to foster children for their frequent moves.

When Aubyn Burnside was 9, her older sister, a social-services employee, told her something that distressed her: She said whenever foster children moved to a new home, they had to lug their belongings around in garbage bags, because they couldn't afford suitcases. "My sister asked my mother if she could give them some of our old luggage. And I started thinking about how hard it must be for these kids to carry stuff around in a garbage bag -- what it did to their self-respect."

So Aubyn had a brainstorm. She made dozens of posters asking for suitcase donations and plastered them around her hometown of Hickory, NC. For three weeks, nothing happened. Desperate to help, Aubyn talked the Salvation Army into selling her 31 suitcases for $15. That got her started and eventually donor luggage started rolling in.

Six years later, Aubyn's nonprofit organization -- which has chapters in every state and in 14 foreign countries -- has collected more than 25,000 suitcases.

"I'd like my project to raise awareness so much that people will automatically think old suitcases go to the Department of Social Services, the way they think glass goes in the recycling bin," Aubyn says.

She's also working on getting more funding for mental-health counseling services for foster kids: She appeared before Congress in May and is in Washington at least once a month talking with child-welfare agencies.

"Imagine if you were just getting settled somewhere and someone said, 'You're leaving in the morning.' Foster kids go through a lot of trauma when they're moved, and they need people to talk to about it."

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