THE FOSTER CARE COMMUNITy
This month, we met at the Buda Library for our first Lunch and Learn of 2020. Austin Angels offers quarterly Lunch and Learns to the volunteers participating in our programs. These intimate gatherings are a great opportunity for our volunteers to come together, ask questions and hear from guest speakers around topics like the foster care system, trauma informed care, mentorship and more.
This month's speaker was Tym Belseth, a researcher from the University of Texas who has intensely studied and personally experienced the Texas foster care system. Tym shared his experience in the system, from entering at age 14, moving from shelters to foster homes, and eventually aging out at 18.
He told heartbreaking stories about how his worst nights of sleep, even after being homeless, were in a group home where a stranger shined a flashlight in his eyes every hour to make sure he was alive. He spoke into the idea that the foster system is a lonely, dark place for children, especially teenagers, and that they usually end up running away and are at great risk of being trafficked. Tym reminded our volunteers that the foster care crisis leads into many other societal issues such as homelessness, high school dropouts and teen pregnancy.
Though some of his experiences were hard to hear, Tym did give us a greater hope for our foster care system. He shared about how important it is for all people, especially kids in care, to have “social capital” - Tym defined this as close social relationships where people feel compassion, genuine connection and consent. These three things are vital to forming healthy, unbreakable bonds between people and these bonds are critical for human development.
According to the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare (CASCW) at the University of Minnesota, “In recent years, emotional and relational permanence have been introduced as concepts that are equally important [to legal permanence, such as the reunification, adoption or legal guardianship]. Research findings indicate that the benefits for youth of being connected to supportive adults have positive, long-term effects on the youth’s social, psychological, and financial outcomes, including improved self-esteem, educational achievement, and social skill development.”
Unfortunately, young people in foster care have had less overall emotional, social and financial support than the general population, and are at a greater risk to have physical, emotional and behavioral problems that lead to negative outcomes. These youth are more likely to experience homelessness, early pregnancy, jail time, unemployment, and poverty, and they are also at a higher risk for mental health issues like depression and suicide.
"Feedback from many former foster youth indicates
Our Dare to Dream Program was created to match aged-out or at-risk to age out foster youth (ages ranging from 11-22) with healthy adults who will help them navigate life's challenges and prepare them for adulthood. Our mentors are advocates, teachers, guides, role models, valued friends, and available resources. They meet practical and emotional needs as well as provide guidance through different developmental milestones. We tell mentors that the simple act of telling their youth “I believe in you,” “You are special,” and “You are going to do great things” can change their path completely.
Rachael, a Dare to Dream mentor, said of her experiences in the program and this month’s Lunch and Learn:
“I’ve committed my heart, time and love to a 13-year-old soul in our foster care system. I’ve mentored this special young lady for about four years now and within that time she’s been in and out of numerous homes and institutions. My goal: be the CONSISTENT in her life and I commit to this promise. To hear [Tym’s] perspective really gifted me with, as Oprah says, ‘ah, ha moments’ and inspired me to use my time with her to the maximum benefit. The success of these children is highly connected to relational permanency...high quality relationships, as noted by Tym and his team.”
Thank you Tym and Rachael for sharing your experiences, wisdom, and advice with our volunteers and our team!
My wife and I spent nearly a year in Ecuador, South America, as missionaries where we were put in charge of an orphanage that housed 54 children. Being around those children and seeing their need for a family really secured our call to foster and adopt. We were unable to adopt from Ecuador due to government regulation, but when we returned to the U.S. it became the goal – foster to adopt.
My wife has been a dental hygienist for the past 15 years and I have held various titles from sales to global account management and owner of a large real estate business that was taken out during the 2009 collapse, but being at home full time with five kids has certainly been the most difficult job of all, and most rewarding at the same time. The first challenge was going from zero kids to five all at once––how do you prepare for that?
We initially wanted to start with one or two kids and no infants––test the waters so to speak. However, our first call straight out of class (before our license even arrived) was for five kids! To make a much longer story short, as we look at all the events that fell into place that allowed us to actually house five siblings so they wouldn’t remain split up in various homes, we decided to just go for it and figure it out as we went. The youngest of the siblings was only six months old––so much for one or two kids and no infants! It was the first time I ever even changed a diaper!
Tending to the needs of all five and giving each the attention they were seeking was certainly a challenge––made even more challenging by the fact that my wife and I had no family to help here in Texas, as we came in from Pennsylvania. For a while it was really just us. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the bond happen, to see the kids grow into our values, and to hear the youngest call us mom and dad. Our life really became about them – it was then and still is all for them.
We heard about Austin Angels and the Love Box Program through our foster agency. Given that we didn’t have the family support system here and could use all the help we could get, we weren’t going to turn away that help! We were really still getting ourselves grounded in TX. We had the foster agency to lean on with questions and some direction but we didn’t have a CASA. Before Love Box I think we only got a chance for a break just one evening in the first entire year. We needed more of that to keep refreshed and have a bit of time to focus on our own relationship (which has always been great and something we didn’t want to sacrifice over the kids).
The hardest part was feeling as though we were going to place a burden on someone else who has their own life to carry out. It’s not easy dealing with five kids, and to ask someone else for any help just wasn’t really our strength, so it was a bit of a learning curve in changing the way we thought about it––learning to instead welcome that help with open arms, knowing this is the way for others to serve.
The support came in different ways––gift boxes for the kids, aiding in our massive grocery bill with gift cards, helping out on their birthdays, and the respite care, which is huge to any parent who doesn’t have anyone else to lean on for that break. Our Love Box leader was willing to stay at our house with all five kids (and two dogs) to let my wife and I have a break and enjoy a night out. Not only were these times very important for us, the kids really loved having her over and it was comforting knowing that while we were away, they were in good hands and having a great time of their own. We did events like fall festivals, going out to eat, parties, etc... It was a little harder in our case because of having our five plus theirs would usually put others over the legal limit of the amount of children in their care. Whenever we were able to make it work, we certainly took advantage of it!
People would always think of my wife and I as doing something great taking in all these kids, keeping siblings together, and all the work and sacrifice involved in doing that––but we always thought the same for those willing to help us! We felt as though this was just what we are supposed to be doing, no big deal.
"BUT THOSE OTHER VOLUNTEERS WHO HAVE THEIR OWN LIVES, AND IN MOST CASES, THEIR OWN CHILDREN, WERE WILLING TO HELP US...THOSE PEOPLE WERE INCREDIBLE TO US.
Just the fact that we had someone else willing to assist us and the kids in all the ways they did was really priceless. If people don’t have that extra support, they may not continue pushing through the struggles that most definitely come up with kids in foster care––and just give up. I’m willing to bet that if you could see the amount of families who stayed together because they had the support when they needed it most, it would be far greater than families who didn’t have support. All of this support helped, and not to mention, the long-term benefits that the kids gain through the additional relationship. It was important to us to have important moments during their growth and development where they had that feeling of being loved by as many around them as we could get. While the actual program was only temporary, I believe it had lifelong effects.
We were in the program for a year and would have continued had we still remained in foster care, but after a very long journey my wife and I were able to finally adopt all five and we are now a forever home!
-Ryan, dad in Austin, TX
Click the video below to see the Baldwin Family at last month's Adoption Celebration.
Rachel is a youth in our Dare to Dream program who has grown up in foster care––and has moved over 50 times in her life.
The good news is that Rachel is an incredibly resilient young woman and has been determined to not let this break her spirit. She does well in school and has some pretty amazing long-term goals for herself, including a dream of attending the University of Texas and majoring in fine arts and dance. She then wants to attend UT Law School and eventually become a judge for children in foster care.
Rachel is stylish, and loves clothes and shoes. She is friendly, outgoing, caring, and polite. She likes to do arts and crafts and especially likes to make bracelets and necklaces with beads. She enjoys dancing, shopping, and music. She also likes to write song lyrics and stories, and loves to sing (you should hear her voice!)
She is now 18, has aged out of foster care, and settled into her own place...
But this apartment was completely empty.
Rachel's Dare to Dream mentor has done an incredible job supporting her through this transition, but given the high need, she knew she could give Rachel the support she needed alone. So we decided to get the community involved. We needed everyone's help bringing Rachel's empty apartment to life and making it feel like a safe, comforting refuge for her to come home to. Some examples of items we were looking for: kitchen utensils, cleaning supplies, laundry items, apartment decor, paper products, clothing and shoes, gift cards and more.
We wanted to help increase Rachel's self esteem and normalcy, and set her up for a different trajectory than the life she has experienced. By rallying around Rachel and her mentor, they would be able to focus less on these basic needs and more on school, employment, budgeting and dreaming of new possibilities for life after foster care.
So we sent out an ask to the community...
... And in less than 20 MINUTES our community showed up BIG TIME! Rachel's entire wishlist was fulfilled so quickly, we thought, "There must have been a glitch! Certainly everything could not have been purchased this quickly!"
From the bottom of our hearts, we thank every single person who showed up for a youth in need in our community. We are humbled and honored to be surrounded by such a generous community of real-life angels.
Later that week, Rachel's mentor shared the following:
"Thank you to all that continue to support me as I help mentor a youth experiencing foster care. Today because of the generosity of Spa Luxe and The Ground Guys of Pflugerville I am taking Rachel for her first fancy spa pedicure for her 19th birthday! She was so excited when she saw where we pulled up!"
In 2019, we had an incredible 45 adoptions take place in families served through our programs!
It is an honor to walk alongside our families no matter where their journeys may lead, but it is extra special when we are able to watch their forever unfold.
Last month we invited these families to The Hive to celebrate. Thanks to our generous community partners, they enjoyed pizza and snacks, a photo booth, face painting, games and a gorgeous “gotcha cake.”
A very special thank you to all of our sponsors who made this day possible:⠀
Click the video below to watch a recap video of our Adoption Celebration!