With the help of her parents, Mike and Cathy, Annie created the Care Bags Foundation in 2000, when she was just an elementary school student in her hometown of Newton, Iowa. In January of that year, Cathy, a child-abuse prevention educator, came home from work and began sharing stories about kids forced to leave their homes without time to pack any belongings. Annie came up with the idea to provide these displaced kids with the personal care items they badly needed.
The Care Bags Foundation equips displaced, abused and disadvantaged children of all ages with fabric “care bags” that include necessities — toothpaste, dental floss, shampoo, soap, combs and school supplies — as well as some goodies — toys, games, stuffed animals, books, art supplies and other age-appropriate items.
Annie, now an elementary school teacher in Pella, says she couldn’t have done it without her mother’s relentless support. After all, Cathy did chauffeur the 11-year-old charity director around town and take phone calls for her. Most important, she made sure none of Annie’s plans were ever considered out of the question. “She allowed me to dream big.” Annie says. “She allowed me to take it from a little idea to this big thing.”
The Care Bags Foundation started out small in Newton, but it wasn’t long before support snowballed. Word spread to surrounding towns, and then to surrounding states. When President George W. Bush heard about Care Bags, he scheduled a meeting with Annie. Former talk show host and famous rock wife Sharon Osbourne tried, too. Annie’s response? She couldn’t take time away from her classes to be on national television.
“Show me another college student who wouldn’t take an all-expenses-paid trip to LA,” says Cheri Doane, director of community-based learning at Central and a friend of the Wignall family. “Her humility caught the eye of celebrities, humanitarians and politicians.”
Annie’s humble and loving demeanor drew the attention of Airline Ambassadors, an organization that provides humanitarian aid to children and families in need, as well as relief and development to underprivileged communities worldwide. Thanks to their partnership, along with the help of 200 national and international distributors, Annie’s foundation has brought tangible gifts of love to crisis-stricken children across the United States and on four continents.
The Care Bags Foundation was a big part of Annie’s decision to attend Central College. She gives two main reasons for her choice: To stay close to the stomping grounds of the organization and to attend a school that emphasizes community service and service-learning. “Annie’s ethos is service. So is that of Central College,” Doane says.
Annie isn’t the only one at Central committed to living a life of service — and growing because of it. More than 85 percent of the Central student body participates in service-learning, which allows them to gain expertise from the community, according to Doane. She cites an “immense” body of research showing that students who engage in service are more likely to vote, learn more and possess an in-depth understanding of issues within the community. “It helps students know themselves better,” Doane says.
The Center for Community-Based Learning at Central connects students with more than 90 community agencies and grassroots organizations throughout central Iowa. And, of course, Care Bags is one of those organizations. “Central really seemed to want to take it on,” says Annie. “There are people from all over the school willing to help out.”
Most recently, a group of Central students worked with Annie’s second-grade class at Madison Elementary School in Pella to prepare care bags for children in need around the globe. Although Annie teaches full time, she remains the president and director of the Care Bags Foundation.
Care Bags was recently featured in the August 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine, which will undoubtedly attract more donors and volunteers. Today, Care Bags — with the help of thousands of volunteers — has brought aid to more than 20,000 displaced children from all over the world. But Annie’s not about to start gloating now. “That’s a big number, but it’s not everyone. I wish I could do more,” she says.