Dee Robinson (second from left), George Robinson (center right), Wendi LeMoine (left of check) and Theresa Karwath (right of check) work with board members and volunteers to host various fundraising events each year, including a Fall Fest celebration with music, food, raffles and auctions. Photos courtesy of Brave Heart - Children in Need

Giving Back: Brave Heart – Children in Need

For the roughly 3,800 foster children currently in Louisiana, family life has already had its challenges. But the process of being ushered into the care of strangers—often on short notice, and with few possessions—can be a traumatic experience all its own. It was the realization of this over a dinner conversation with her social worker niece Christy that led Baton Rouge native Dee Robinson to embark on the philanthropic journey that would eventually lead to the establishment of nonprofit Brave Heart – Children in Need back in 2004. 

As recalled by executive director Wendi LeMoine, who at the time worked alongside Christy for the Department of Children and Family Services in Livingston Parish, Christy was distraught about a young girl recently brought into foster care. The child had cried herself to sleep in the office while social workers searched for a family who could take her in. Dee couldn’t believe it—weren’t there teddy bears or blankets that could be given to the child? But Christy shook her head. DCFS was only an office. They had computers and paper and phones.

The next day, “Auntie Dee” and her husband George bought a supply of fluffy stuffed bears to bring to their local DCFS offices. Demand soon grew, and after a while, the Robinsons realized they could no longer operate from the trunk of their car and decided to turn their efforts into an official nonprofit. Eighteen years later, the organization now serves children alongside DCFS in all 64 parishes.

Brave Heart volunteers hand-wrap Christmas packages to be delivered all across the state, with most items coming from the organization’s Amazon wishlist and from donation boxes placed around local businesses during Brave Heart’s Christmas in July campaign.

But teddy bears aren’t the only things filling up the Baton Rouge warehouse. These days, the teddy bears come as a package deal, with Brave Heart including them in specially prepared backpacks, each one filled with anything a child might need during the first few nights in a new home. Think hygiene items, a pair of pajamas, a comforting toy or blanket, a book, and even school supplies.

“In 2021, we distributed 947 backpacks,” says LeMoine. “It just gives the kids something fun and interesting to open as a distraction, and it’s something that belongs only to them.”

Besides backpacks and teddy bears, foster children may have also received one of the 963 Life Books distributed last year—binders filled with pages of activities and coloring sheets, but also scrapbooking pages where kids can keep track of life events and store photos of their biological family. 

“There are also some therapeutic pages in there to help with journaling, prompting them with questions to help them chronicle their journey through foster care,” says LeMoine. 

Naturally, the holiday season brings its own set of gift-giving opportunities, with Brave Heart operating a Christmas Project donation program distributing hand-wrapped gift bags to foster children across the state. The organization accepts most toys from volunteers between October and November and during its Christmas in July campaign, when the organization sets up donation boxes with scannable QR codes directing people to an online Amazon wishlist.

“Kids get gifts from their foster parents and churches, but we just wanted to add something of our own,” says LeMoine, who helps wrap the larger gifts and small stocking stuffers that fill each bag. “For the last few years, we’ve provided about 1,500 children a year with Christmas gifts, with 60 to 70% of gifts coming from donors.”

This year, Brave Heart has also continued to build its Youth Transition Program for young adults ages 18 to 21 who can—under the DCFS’s Extended Foster Care Program—choose to stay with a caseworker instead of phasing    out of the foster care system on their 18th birthday. Coordinated by Theresa Karwath, Dee’s sister and a former public school teacher for 38 years, the Youth Transition Program got its start by working with the Youth Advisory Board to pinpoint items necessary for a fresh start in college or independent living, from vacuums to dishware to earpods or even laptops.

“These kids don’t have the support of a traditional family when they go out into the world, so they often need extra help,” says Karwath, who is also working to develop additional financial literacy workshops and career fairs for the program. “The youth can select the things they need from a list, and we deliver it straight to them. Since we don’t know exactly what they need, we want to give them their independence and ability to choose.”

Whether in infancy or on the cusp of adulthood, the children and young adults supported by Brave Heart prove that—at least for a little while—a smile really can be the best medicine.

“Anything we can do to mitigate stress or distract from the trauma, we do,” says LeMoine. “Even the smallest comforts can make a huge impact.”

For Amazon wishlists and other ways to help, visit