Many ways to 'Foster A Dream' | December 9, 2011 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - December 9, 2011

Many ways to 'Foster A Dream'

Residents get creative to make a difference in the lives of foster youths

by Jerri Pantages Long

Kayla was in her sixth-grade math class when she was summoned to the principal's office where two uniformed police officers were waiting. They put Kayla in the back of their patrol car and drove away. Away from her school and friends. Away from her neighborhood and family. She did not have the chance to say goodbye.

Kayla (not her real name) did not know until later that she had just entered into foster care. At age 12, she was considered unlikely to be adopted, so she would live with a series of strangers until her 18th birthday. After that, she would be on her own. She might be among the many foster youths to suffer either post-traumatic stress disorder or re-attachment disorder, which is not bonding with the adults in her life.

Foster care is provided to children who have been orphaned and have no relatives to care for them, or whose parents have been incarcerated; the majority of children enter foster care because they have been either abused or neglected by their birth parents.

Currently there are about 1,500 youths in foster care in Alameda County; 10 of them reside in Pleasanton, according to the county's Children's Placement Services and Adoptive Foster Care department. Foster care providers are given financial stipends to provide the basics -- food, clothing, shelter, medical care.

One organization exists to provide the "extras" that can make a huge difference in a young person's quality of life: Foster A Dream was created in 2002 by Lori Cohen, who had herself been in foster care growing up. After she was married and raising her own children, she was reminded of the many things that foster youths are likely to miss out on.

"Our mission is to provide programs and resources that build the hopes, dreams and futures of Bay Area foster children, and be a guiding source for successful transition into the adult world," states the Foster A Dream website. "We plant seeds of promise in children who are underrepresented. Children who are thrust, as innocents, into a system which in its present condition simply cannot develop them, but rather merely sustains them until they are released as young adults into a world for which they are not prepared."

The group has a staff of two, plus lots of volunteers, who reach about 1,600 foster youths in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa and Solano counties, helping out in ways great and small.

Cohen recalled rolling up her sweatshirt as a makeshift pillow in a foster home. Now Foster A Dream's Pillow Pals make sure that foster youths have their own pillows, with special, handmade, colorful pillowcases -- a small but important comfort. At the other end of the scale, Foster A Dream each spring awards scholarships to help foster youths just out of high school go to college.

"We're kind of like the family part," said Executive Director Kim Castaneda. "We provide the mentoring and supplemental services that the county cannot offer. Our foster kids can call us, like you would a parent, for advice or help."

One recent example was a young man who had won a scholarship but discovered that the funds would not be available in time to make a deposit to secure a dorm room. He called Foster A Dream, and it was quickly able to help.

"Our core program targets those foster youth ages 13 and up," Castaneda said. "They are getting ready for emancipation and need the most help."

Whereas many teenagers celebrate high school graduation at age 18 with parties and gifts and a sense of freedom, it has been a different story for foster youths. Under current law, they leave the system -- and the support -- at age 18. That law is being revised, to allow support for a few years longer.

W. Chance Tarver, Livermore High School Class of 2009, wrote about graduating from high school and turning 18:

"I was forced to speak with case lawyers, sit down with social workers, my foster parent, and a county worker whom I had never met to discuss my 'unpleasant' situation," Tarver explained. "I signed stacks of papers I didn't understand, without any explanation of what I was signing, yet I signed, checked and initialed as I was instructed.

"Instead of sending graduation invitations and receiving gifts from family and friends, I was awarded with my father's death certificate. I was handed a manila folder that explained why I originally entered foster care - events I have suppressed or can't remember due to being only 4 when I entered the system. The contents of the manila folder made sure I remembered what happened."

Tarver needed help from Foster A Dream to go to college because his relatives, alcoholic mother and deceased father could not help him.

Last summer, Foster A Dream launched "Get Set," which Program Director Tamara Earl describes as a two-week, all-day "impactful and intense hands-on summer camp to help with career, academic and personal exploration."

The eight foster youths involved ranged in ages from 17 to 24. Guest speakers helped them practice survival skills such as writing a resume, shopping for what to wear for an interview, participating in mock interviews, exploring college options, visiting corporations, learning the value of teamwork, and taking personality assessment tests.

"We wish we had the funding to spread this kind of workshop over the year to reach more kids," Earl said. "We were opening their eyes to opportunities."

Pleasanton resident Kathy Steyaert has been a weekly volunteer at Foster A Dream since her retirement from teaching five years ago. She helped three of the "Get Set" participants translate their $100 gift cards into outfits suitable for a job interview, including one young man who managed to find enough bargains for three outfits.

"Nothing compares to that smiling face you see when a need is met, a dream fulfilled. The adage 'you get more than you give' is so true," Steyaert said.

Another Pleasanton resident who has helped Foster A Dream is Kelly Dixon, currently a freshman at Foothill High School. She spent a large part of her summer filling new backpacks for foster youths.

"I started out by handing out fliers to summer school students attending Amador Valley High School," said Dixon. "I gave them a list of needed supplies with the prices, plus a due date for bringing them to their classrooms. Then I sent out a letter to close friends and family members, asking them for either supplies or donations to buy them."

Kelly and her mother Erin went shopping for notebooks, folders, binders and other useful things like colored pencils and glue sticks, and Dixon was able to provide 15 backpacks to be distributed by Foster A Dream.

Foster A Dream's biggest event of the year is Wonderland, when staff members, interns and volunteers transform an empty warehouse into an enchanting place for foster youths of all ages to get winter holiday gifts.

About 1,000 foster youths visit Wonderland during two weekends in December. They are greeted by volunteer "elves," who escort them to stations to choose stuffers for their own holiday stockings then toys and jackets; teens receive gift cards. They also can have their pictures taken, since that is one of the things missing from the lives of most foster youths. At one special station, the youths can select their very own fleece cuddle blanket, plus a stuffed animal -- two forms of comfort when their own parents are not there to tuck them in at night.

Amador Valley High School graduate Sarah Williams took on the task of fleece blankets in a big way, after being inspired by "Hope's Child," an autobiography of Andrew Bridge and his years in foster care.

"Once I learned that there are 80,000 (foster) children in California alone and that many of them have only the clothes on their backs, I knew that giving as many of them as possible a blanket of their own was something I needed to do," Sarah wrote in the album that details her Girl Scout Gold Award project.

Williams had made colorful fleece blankets as part of her volleyball team and her first goal was 800 fleece blankets, or one from every student attending Valley Christian School at the time. From Lions and Rotary service clubs, Sarah obtained $3,000 to purchase 500 bolts of fleecy material in vivid patterns. During the hot summer months, Williams and fellow student volunteers were on their hands and knees in the school gymnasium, cutting up 2,000 yards of fleece for the no-sew project.

Williams was wondering how she would get the blankets to foster youths, and the answer came from on high -- literally. As Williams was unloading the blankets in her driveway, Juan Castro was overhead, trimming the family's trees. Castro has been Foster A Dream's Volunteer of the Year more than once, for sewing pillowcases and helping set up Wonderland. He called down to Williams, advising how to donate the blankets to Wonderland.

Since that time, by teaching blanket-making in schools, to Girl Scouts, at National Charity League and Interact Club, seniors groups and others, Williams has been able to donate more than 10,000 fleece blankets to foster youths in three counties, and her Creative Kindness blanket project has spread to cities across the USA. Williams has received a $10,000 grant to teach the cut-and-knot technique of blanket-making to 20,000 Girl Scouts at a jamboree in May.

"I know that I want to continue helping the thousands of foster children in this country who wake up each morning without their parents and are brave enough to do the best they can on their own," Williams said. "These children have inspired me, and humbled me, and set me on a path of service -- local, national and global -- that I intend to follow throughout my life."

Sarah's younger sister Claire, a junior at Amador, impressed with Wonderland, organized a similar event last year in Pleasanton, at the Veterans Memorial Building. Foster youths attended for an enjoyable day and carried home bags of gifts, including warm jackets and backpacks filled with school supplies. This year Claire collected books to be given as gifts.

"Not everyone can become a foster parent, but everyone can help a foster child," said executive director Castaneda.

A donation of money can ensure that a foster youth is not left out of a high school yearbook because he or she can't afford a senior portrait. It can mean the difference in being able to play an instrument in the school band or to join a sports team. Funds can allow a foster youth to attend a school prom or have a new pair of shoes that fit.

Jen Herrick, a nurse at John Muir Medical Center, raised over $1,500 so that one young lady in foster care could get orthodontic work. She heard about Foster A Dream through her employee newsletter and volunteered with a co-worker at Wonderland. About that same time, her church challenged members to take $100 and "pay it forward and watch it grow," Herrick said.

She learned of the foster girl's dream of straightened teeth, found out how much it would cost, and decided to give a garage sale with her Touriga Drive neighbors.

"It was fun to see others get involved," Herrick said.

She invested her $100 to purchase gift cards for stores, restaurants and gas stations so she could offer drawing tickets to supplement what was sold at the sale.

Her neighbors came through with an astounding array of items to sell, which brought in more than $1,200 in just one day in August. The drawing brought in another $600, enabling Herrick to write a check to Foster A Dream to create a beautiful smile for someone she likely will never meet.

Other donations can offer the possibility of attending a summer camp to help with challenges like diabetes or autism, and allow foster youths to join group celebrations so their birthdays are not overlooked.

Volunteers are also important: One hundred are needed to build Wonderland, and then 60 for each of three shifts on four days in December. Mentors also are needed, especially men since most Alameda County foster care providers are single mothers.

Sleep Train holds six drives each year for foster children, collecting clothing, shoes, pajamas, school supplies, holiday gifts and cash. Donations come from individuals, business, churches, social groups, schools and sports clubs.

"We will be collecting unwrapped books, toys and games through Dec. 11," said Mauri Knowles, marketing and community relations coordinator. "The holidays should be a magical time for a child, but, for over 60,000 California foster children, the holidays can be an especially difficult time away from family and friends."

May is Foster Youth Awareness Month, and Foster A Dream hosts a breakfast for about 300 people to see college scholarships given to graduating high school seniors. Last year, on that one morning, participants donated or pledged nearly $90,000 to help Foster A Dream continue its programs.

Special guest speaker at that event was Lily Eagle Dorman-Colby, who has gone from being a Bay Area foster youth to becoming a graduate of Yale University, class of 2010 -- with help from a Foster A Dream scholarship -- and who now has a graduate fellowship for law school at UC Berkeley.

"Despite being a high-achieving student, in one foster care home I was treated more like a criminal, as if I didn't deserve to be cared for," Dorman-Colby told the audience. "Getting tossed from home to home without a loving family was difficult. Fortunately, later, while living in more supportive foster homes, I was able to find a stronger sense of self. School became my second home."

All the Lilys, Chances and Kaylas who are growing up without their parents deserve to have dreams, and Foster A Dream helps them hope that they might come true.

Want to help?

Who: Foster A Dream

What: "Inspiring foster youth to believe and achieve."

Contact: email or call 228-0200

Address: 625 Escobar St., Martinez 94553


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