BU Grad Starts Non-Profit to Provide Dignity Through Duffel Bags
“You pack your life into this bag.”
Imagine being 8 years old and watching your mother die. And then having your father abandon you with nothing but a few articles of clothing thrown into a cardboard box.
Seema Steffany, who recently earned her master’s degree in Clinical Counseling, doesn’t have to imagine it – because she lived through that painful experience. “What hurt me to my core has now propelled me to start an organization that extends dignity to thousands of children entering foster care,” she said.
That organization, based in her home state of Oregon, is Project Never Again. It’s a non-profit with an unusual and distinct mission – to provide duffel bags for children entering the foster care system so they have something to pack their belongings in, other than a trash bag.
“A duffel bag will certainly not stop the trauma that comes through foster care but while they are enduring this phase, it is this non-profit’s mission to at least give them the dignity they deserve. No child should ever have to endure the shame of carrying garbage bags as their luggage.”
The problem is real and significant in size. According to Steffany, close to 7,500 children move between homes in Oregon each year and about half of them do so with nothing except garbage bags to carry their belongings.
So, using skills she developed in her graduate degree program and her Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Science program, she’s made her dream a reality. Not only did she found Project Never Again, she’s built a working relationship with Oregon’s Department of Human Services-Child Welfare Division to facilitate delivery of the bags.
“My goal is to make Oregon a state where not a single child entering foster care should ever have to use garbage bags or boxes,” she said. “I will give my all to make this dream become a reality for our children.”
Education Lays Groundwork
Steffany came to Bellevue University following in the footsteps of her husband, Mike, who earned his MBA with areas of concentration in both Healthcare and Entrepreneurship. In addition to managing Project Never Again, Steffany is a Child Support Case Manager for the Oregon Department of Justice. She juggled being a wife, an employee and a non-profit founder while in pursuit of her degrees.
“Having the convenience of completing online classes all while holding a full-time job was a bonus,” Steffany said. “It was not easy by any means, but the convenience of all things online made it possible. I wanted to study more about human behavior in relation to community services and the program through Bellevue (University) gave me just what I needed.”
Steffany said she was so intrigued and engaged during her bachelor’s program that continuing on to earn her master’s degree was an easy decision.
“Little did I know that my master’s degree would expose me to most of what I needed to learn to establish a non-profit,” she said. “I always knew that I wanted to be a social worker but it was my education that truly gave me the confidence to take on this huge challenge of launching a non-profit that serves the entire state of Oregon!”
While it’s about 1,700 miles between Bellevue University and Steffany’s Oregon home, she praised the efforts of Professor Gail Ortegren for bridging that gap.
“Sometimes it can be difficult to build a relationship with online professors, but my experiences with Professor Ortegren was exceptional,” Steffany said. “She was always available and very patient with me as I did ask a lot of questions. To an extent, she became my mentor and someone who I would share my thoughts with about non-profits and how they could help children. Her words of encouragement really meant a lot.”
In fact, Steffany is the first to say that her Bellevue University education had a direct impact on her ability to get Project Never Again up and running.
“Establishing a non-profit from ground up with minimal support was extremely difficult. I walked into this with an immense fear of failure yet each time I had to overcome my challenges I found myself leaning on my education,” she said. “Perhaps I would be considered one of the lucky ones -- what I went to school for has helped me both personally and professionally.”
Husband Mike was a constant source of encouragement, as well.
“It was Mike who told me that it was never too late to do what I truly yearned to do in life. Without his support, I would not be where I am today,” she said.
It’s second year in operation, Project Never Again has now supported 3100 children in Oregon’s foster care. Seema has some lofty goals for its future.
“By year five, my goal is to make Oregon a state where not a single child entering foster care should ever have to use garbage bags or boxes,” she said.