Andrew Johnson, a third-grade student from Adams Elementary, looks up at Carroll County Sheriff Ken Pingrey after handing him a “buddy bag” Wednesday afternoon at Swan Lake.
Andrew Johnson, a third-grade student from Adams Elementary, looks up at Carroll County Sheriff Ken Pingrey after handing him a “buddy bag” Wednesday afternoon at Swan Lake.

June 1, 2018

When Mark Skillen was 6 years old, a social worker gave him the book “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

As a child in and out of the foster care system, he learned that it was the little things like books and small presents that held a great deal of significance and always stuck with him.

Now at 53, Skillen, a custodian for the Carroll Community School District, has found a way to give back and help other kids in difficult or frightening situations feel safe and cared-for.

During their school picnic Wednesday at Swan Lake, third-grade students from Adams Elementary School met with the Carroll Police Department and Carroll County Sheriff’s Office to give them 30 “buddy bags” the students put together.

Inside the bags were children’s books donated by the Carroll Public Library, Beanie Babies from staff members at St. Anthony Regional Hospital and inspirational notes written by the third-graders to encourage any children caught in difficult situations to remain strong and remember they are cared-for.

Adams Elementary School teacher Sara Hamilton said that Skillen came up with the idea to give the law-enforcement officers the buddy bags to carry with them for children they encounter during their stops.

Skillen said those kids were his inspiration for starting the buddy bags.

“What inspired me to get this going was the kids, unfortunately,” Skillen said. “I read all of these headlines, and I don’t want to talk too much about it, but all of the hard things that are happening at our schools. This originally kind of started out as my response to the tragedies that have been going on. Obviously it’s a much bigger problem than I could ever answer or stop, but much with any other tragedies in our life, we have the choice of either sitting and stewing about them and allowing it to consume our every thought or anger (or finding a way to help).”

This is Skillen’s first year organizing the buddy bags, and he hopes to continue doing it every year, he said.

“All along, we’ve been talking about leaving a legacy,” he said. “You’re leaving a part of yourself that is positive to spread kindness like confetti, so this is what we are doing — we are spreading kindness like confetti.”

Skillen said he hopes to have completed 200 buddy bags by the end of the summer. He just needs more donations to get there.

If we can at least start the discussion with these kids of not only leaving a positive side of themselves with people, but maybe we can teach them how to interact with each other in a positive way,” Skillen said.