Over the next week or so, about 1,000 college kids across the country will find in their mail a cardboard box, weighing about 4 pounds, bearing a Northern Virginia postmark.
It will contain homemade cookies with Ghirardelli chocolate chips, microwave popcorn, a sewing kit, a calculator and other supplies -- the kind of package from home viewed in some dorm rooms as little more than an ordinary domestic entitlement.
But the boxes being packed yesterday by volunteers at the Northern Virginia Training Center in Fairfax County will be delivered to unadopted foster kids in college, and to many of them, the deliveries mean much more.
"When you get something like this, you're just so thankful that someone is out there for you -- especially when you didn't think anyone was there, you know?" said Lisa Foehner, 25, who grew up in foster care and was assisting in the National Care Package Program run by the Orphan Foundation of America. "These kids have nothing. They don't get anything from anybody. They don't have contact with their parents -- they're drug addicts or sick. They're scraping by. Obviously, it does not substitute for parents. But it means a lot."
"It's just a really important part of this program -- in some ways, even more so than the scholarships," said LaJuana Acklin, 22, a foster child who expects to graduate from Howard University in May with a degree in psychology. Her mother died when she was 11. "It just says, 'I love you' and 'We're thinking about you.' "
In recent years, the Orphan Foundation of America, which organized yesterday's event, and other groups have sought to draw attention to the lives of unadopted foster children once they "age out" or are "emancipated" from the state system, often when they are as young as 18.
About 25,000 children do so every year, and as many as one in three of them soon becomes homeless, at least briefly, according to Eileen McCaffrey, director of the Reston-based foundation.
"Many of them have tremendous resilience, McCaffrey said. "But for many, a sense of loneliness and loss permeates their lives. There's a lot of depression. There's a lot of self-loathing."
Recognizing their financial difficulties, the federal government set aside $42 million last year for a new program to help older foster children attend college or vocational school. Only some of the states have distributed the money.
Even aside from the difficulties of going to college without financial support from home, foster children said there were other emotional strains as well.
"The vacations really make them feel alone," said Lee Klejnot, 25, a former foster child who was taken from his parents when he was 13 and attended Purdue University. "You step out into the hallway and there are 100 doors on the corridor and they're all closed, and you realize everyone is at home except you."
The care package program, which began informally in the early 1990s and which the foundation hopes to expand tenfold, is meant to address the sense among foster kids in college that they are completely alone.
The foundation doles out about $8 million annually in scholarships and other services for foster kids seeking postsecondary education and training. But they consider the care packages critical.
"It doesn't work just to give them money," said Annalisa Assaadi, director of the care package program. "They need a connection."