Sunday, December 28, 2014

One New Year's Resolution

Photo credit: Kelly ODonnell
First, let me tell you about our big feat earlier this month.

I've wanted to be a foster mom for a long time, but that's not in the cards right now. Being a single mom with a crazy schedule isn't going to work. But every few months, I find myself drifting back to the "waiting child" websites and the encouraging "you don't have to be perfect to be a foster parent!" campaigns. I read My Orange Duffel Bag by Sam Bracken and my soul sister Echo Garrett, about Sam's journey from abuse and homelessness to success.

I learned about the dismal statistics for kids in foster care-- how most kids are just dumped when they turn 18, with nowhere to go and few people to help them. They often wind up in homeless shelters, and more than half of the young men wind up in prison at some point. (In fact, 70 percent of the prison population has been in foster care.) Less than 5 percent of them graduate from college, and their rates of teen pregnancy are staggering. It's all just depressing.

And for a while, I struggled with guilt about not being able to do anything. I had a bit of tunnel vision-- thinking that the only way to make a difference was by actually becoming a foster parent. But then I began noticing organizations that are meant to improve the lives of kids and teens in foster care-- and those who are aging out-- and it opened up my mind to the idea that there were lots of ways to help.

The organization I latched onto the most was Together We Rise, a nonprofit started by a college student who had watched his cousin enter the system. I loved their Facebook posts, which not only highlighted the problems, but also empowered people to help with the solutions. They point out some of the biggest difficulties about foster care (such as that kids aging out rarely have a car or other form of transportation) and then offer up ways to help (in that case, building bikes to donate).

They highlighted the case of one young woman who was aging out and wanted to go to college... but she didn't have a computer, so the organization did a quick drive to raise the money to buy her a laptop. It felt so good to be able to contribute something toward that!

Then they started an initiative to take foster kids to Disneyland: 200 kids who had been separated from their siblings while in foster care. Not only did the kids get a free trip and park tickets, but they even got a little spending money for souvenirs. And I realized... I can help. Even if all I have to give is $10, that $10 can live on indefinitely in the form of a little souvenir pin or stuffed animal or whatever, to remind that child that someone cares.

Because that's what it's all about, isn't it?

We all do better as human beings when we feel that someone cares.

So my involvement started with donating a few dollars here and there to various campaigns as I could. I admired the photos they would post of corporations hosting special events, and then one day it occurred to me: Why not me? I was waiting for someone else to Do Something so I could just join in, but then I realized that I'm someone.

Not only am I someone, but I'm someone who wants to show her awesome daughter that this is a good world and that helping others is a joyful responsibility of ours.

With that in mind, I volunteered to run an event for Together We Rise in my community: building "Sweet Cases." Most kids entering foster care are given two garbage bags to carry their belongings (which are usually meager). How lame is that? What message does that send? Together We Rise instead has a program where people can buy and decorate good-quality duffel bags for the kids, and then include a few comfort items (like a teddy bear and coloring book) and essentials (a toothbrushing kit and blanket).

I put feelers out online, to see if parents from my daughter's school district might join in. Oh, yes. They sure would.

I pestered and badgered people until we managed to break the all-time record for a community build... we raised enough money to decorate and fill 140 duffel bags. SO COOL.

After that, it was a matter of setting a date, finding a location, collecting the money, scooping up a good friend for a late-night trip to Michael's and convincing the manager to let us use far too many coupons, commandeering my living room for a week, and holding the event-- which we did this month. Let me show you what it was like...

First, you need a really good helper to unload the boxes.

Then you need a great space for the event. (Thanks, UUFSB!)

Then you need some seriously cute Boy Scouts. This is not optional.

And voila! Together, you all paint designs on these cool duffel bags and stuff them with good stuff.
Here's one of my bags!
A bit of the aftermath...


After the event, my aunt and I drove the bags over to Little Flower Children and Family Services (yep, it took a few trips!). They not only provide foster placements and training for foster parents, but also have residential facilities for teens with medical and behavioral problems, as well as mother-and-child facilities for teen moms in foster care. They do a ton of good. And of course, as I researched them, I learned what else they need... sure, some tangible items like outerwear and toys for the holidays, but also lots of volunteers in various capacities-- such as answering phones, writing newsletters, painting a mural in one of the group homes, and mentoring.

My mind raced with the many ways I could be of use. Do I know how to answer a phone? YES, I DO. Can I write the heck out of a newsletter? YES, I CAN. Could I paint a mural? DID YOU SEE MY FISH UP THERE? Mentoring? THINK OF THE SUBVERSIVE IDEAS I COULD INFLICT ON THOSE KIDS!

I think sometimes it's overwhelming to realize how much you can do, and then get stuck in that abyss of possibility and forget to act. And so that's my New Year's Resolution: to be more useful. To act on my usefulness.

Want to join me?


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