Liberty University’s Vines Center was filled with students Wednesday night, wielding teddy bears, toiletries and school supplies as they packed 308 suitcases for Lynchburg-area foster kids.
Large tarps were spread across the empty arena and ringed the top of the tiered stadium seats. Almost every inch of space was filled with at least 1,500 Liberty students who were volunteering their time and resources to give foster children something to call their own.
The event was a partnership between the Unclaimed Baggage Center and Liberty University to pack, paint and personalize luggage for every foster child in the Lynchburg area — encompassing Campbell, Bedford and Amherst counties, and the city of Lynchburg.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center is the end of the line for lost luggage.
The Alabama-based store is a massive 40,000- square-foot warehouse and one of the top tourist destinations in the state. When lost luggage is unable to be reunited with its owner, it is sold to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, the only retailer in America that buys and sells unclaimed luggage. Alongside Liberty University, they donated the suitcases to be filled by Liberty students.
Students decorated the canvas and plastic casings of the luggage with painted designs, Bible scripture or reminders — “you are loved,” one read.
The effort was a part of “Love Luggage Day,” the latest initiative of Unclaimed Baggage’s philanthropic program, Reclaimed for Good.
Brenda Cantrell, brand ambassador for Unclaimed Baggage and steward of its Reclaimed for Good operation, said it was the biggest “Love Luggage” event they have ever held. Cantrell has led efforts across the country, but was shocked by the scale and energy with which Liberty University took on the challenge.
“Love Luggage Day” is designed to give dignity to foster children, Cantrell said, those who often must move with only garbage bags to tote their belongings. Now, many of those children will have suitcases hand-painted by Liberty students.
“It makes my heart feel like it’s about to explode,” Cantrell said of the Liberty event. “Children come into a loving home, but they have to start from scratch. This is going to be their own.”
She gestured to the personalized luggage — “No one else will have that.”
Though Unclaimed Baggage is based in Scottsboro, Alabama, Cantrell had seen Pastor David Nasser, Liberty’s senior vice president for Spiritual Development, speak on multiple occasions. When a series of coincidences led Nasser to stop in the store on his way through Scottsboro, Cantrell said she was excited to begin what would become an important friendship and an incredible chance to collaborate.
When they had the idea to bring the Love Luggage event to Liberty, Cantrell wasn’t expecting a packed arena of thousands and more than 300 personalized suitcases ready to be distributed.
Emily Stewart, a Liberty student and community group leader, knelt on a square of tarp by the arena concession stand Wednesday night. She and her friends were packing a suitcase for a 16- to 18-year-old. The purple suitcase was filled with warm blankets, fuzzy socks and toiletries. They arranged the items while they waited for their primer coat of paint to dry.
“It will make it look fun,” Stewart said. “And give them something special.”
Another student, Robert Penha, had organized a trip for commuter students who wanted to pitch in as well, not content to leave the event to on-campus student leadership alone.
They took a bus to the nearby Ollie’s Bargain Outlet and filled shopping carts with suitcase stuffers, spending more than $200 to provide toys and necessities for their assigned children.
Ashley Lison, executive director of LU Stages — the department that handles campus-wide events and ministry experiences — said they first partnered with Unclaimed Baggage when Cantrell spoke at Liberty’s career week last year. When they found out about the Love Luggage project, Lison said it sounded like the perfect way to serve people in the community.
“We want this to be a reminder that you are not forgotten in the system,” Lison said. “This can give back to the community we are a part of every day.”
HumanKind, a Lynchburg-based nonprofit, will help distribute the suitcases in the coming weeks.
On Nov. 8, Cantrell will address Liberty University students at convocation at 10:30 a.m., and reveal the completed bags.