For our “Big Give” segment this month, we are featuring Together We Rise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the way youth navigate through the foster care system in America. I've invited the Donor Relations Manager, Steven Macias, to tell us more about the organization.
We're also going to discuss the state of foster care in our country.
Andy Hill: Can you tell us a little bit about what foster care is?
Steven Macias: Foster care is essentially a government system where children or youth under the age of 18 have been removed from their parents or guardians and they have entered the system of foster care. This means that they are living with individuals who have signed up to take them under their care.
It could be a temporary placement or it could be a permanent placement which leads to adoption.These are kids who have been victims of neglect or abuse at a certain capacity and because of those circumstances, they have been placed in the care of others, usually a foster family. Sometimes, a group home. And for the time being, they're under the care of those caregivers.
How many kids in the US are in foster care right now?
Right now, there are over 400,000 kids in foster care in the United States. It's a mindboggling number and it, unfortunately, seems to rise steadily every year that passes. I think the exact amount is around 436,000. But again, that number fluctuates daily because there are kids that enter the system every day.
Why do kids to end up in foster care?
It really varies.
The opioid epidemic and certain drug-related issues are on the rise. Because of that, we see an increased number of kids who are entering the system.
Unfortunately, their parents may be struggling with addiction or other related issues, and for that reason, they are not able to care for their biological children. They do end up in the foster care system many of these times.
What does the typical life of a foster care child look like?
They enter the system after a difficult situation, like their parents were addicted to opioids and they just couldn't take care of them anymore.
In an ideal world, if a child were to enter the foster care system, they would be placed with a foster family which has agreed to take care of this child for a determined amount of time. This could be a relative or a grandparent, cousin, Aunt or Uncle.
If they can't be placed with a relative, they will have a loving family to take care of this child until their biological parents can get back on track.
The ultimate goal of the foster care system is family preservation. The idea isn't to take kids away from their families and place them with the new families out of force or anything like that. The idea is to kind of recuperate those biological parents to a state where they can take those children back in. That's kind of the end goal of the foster care system, but that isn't always the case.
Unfortunately, a lot of times, there are kids that enter the system and there isn't a foster family available to take them in. There isn't a relative that's able to care for them either, so they end up in group homes, which essentially, ranges from about six to eight kids who are living under a state-funded home with staff members who are there to essentially be the family and care for them.
A lot of kids bounce from home to home. They can go from a foster family to a foster family and from that family to a group home and back to a family and to another group home. Unfortunately, we hear many cases where kids have been through numerous homes, and eventually, they age out of the system and they still don't have a steady home to care for them.
It's unfortunate, but again, the best-case scenario would be that there was a foster family or a relative there to care for those kids in the meantime.
How did Together We Rise begin?
Together We Rise started in 2008. Our founder, Danny Mendoza, found out one day that his cousin, who was 9 years old, was living in a car. And because our founder was very young at the time and he wanted to get involved, he realized that there weren't many ways to do so. A lot of organizations didn't take him seriously. “Oh, it's just a young person. There's not much he can really do about it.”
And so because of that, he started Together We Rise and our organization was born. I met Danny just a few years later. We both shared that heart for helping the underdogs of the world and wanted to make a difference in their lives. Recently, they invited me on board after working with them and volunteering for several years and here we are. So it's been a lot of fun to get to work together to kind of help as many kids as possible and work with amazing people to make a difference.
What does Together We Rise do to support kids in foster care?
We have a variety of different programs. Our most popular one is our Sweet Case Program.
It's essentially a duffel bag that we give to kids in care that have been personalized by a volunteer. And we give those to kids so they have something to carry their personal belongings in as they're navigating the foster care system.
Often times when a child is removed from their home, they're given 1 or 2 trash bags and are basically told, “Hey, you have 5 to 15 minutes to gather up all your belongings and place them in these garbage bags.” And as a child, you can imagine the message that that sends to you. So Sweet Cases were created to kind of give them a sense of dignity and say, “Hey, you are valuable. Your belongings do matter. You do matter.”
And even though it may not seem like a big gesture, it makes a world of difference for kids who are having their lives kind of turned upside down in those moments.
What other programs are provided through Together We Rise?
We also provide bikes and skateboards to kids in foster care so they can get around to and from school, to and from work, things like that just to give them a sense of transportation that's reliable. Often times, kids that are in foster care, they don't have their parents to give them their hand-me-down car or get them a new car or whatever the case may be, so we try to meet the need where it's at and provide those tools to them.
Also, once a year, we reunite 150 siblings who have been separated in foster care. We take them to Disneyland and give them an all-expenses-paid weekend where they can just be with their siblings and create some positive memories for a change.
Those are our main programs.
We really just try to be innovative in the way that we change the way these kids experience the foster care system. A lot of times, it's just a lot of meeting with social workers and case workers and it gets old for them and it becomes a tiresome process. Where we exist is as a tool to give them some positive memories throughout this entire journey. We've had a lot of really good success with that.
If I were to donate to Together We Rise, where does the money go specifically?
What's cool about the way we handle our donations is that you get to decide what it goes toward. If you wanted that money to go towards a Sweet Case for a child, we can direct it to that. If you want it to go towards a bike or even being part of our Disney days, whatever you choose to send your money towards, is what we put it towards.
We're very transparent about where we use our funding. And so anything that we get, it goes to what you choose and it also stays local to your community.
If you decided to put together Sweet Cases, we make sure to connect you with a foster care agency in your own community to make sure that we're helping kids in your own backyard so you know exactly where those products are going towards. You can rest assured that those kids have those Sweet Cases in their possession at this time.
So Together We Rise is a nationwide program, correct?
We are based in Southern California. We also just opened an office in Austin, Texas, which is going to be a volunteer event center, where we can have volunteers come together.
Our programs operate nationally across the country though, and we're able to do that through volunteers and companies and churches and groups that want to give back and make a difference. Wherever they're at, we try to meet that need and make sure that they're helping kids in their own community.
Is there a story about a child or somebody who's gone through your program that was specifically impacted that really motivated you?
We get letters all the time, especially from foster families, who they have a child show up with their belongings and trash bags. Recently, we had a foster parent reach out and they said, “Hey, we just want to let you guys know we just received a placement.”
Essentially, they came with these two siblings, a brother and sister, and they showed up at the house with a social worker and all of their belongings were placed in two black trash bags. And when they got there, the foster agency that the family was fostering through gave them some of our Sweet Cases to greet the kids.
It came with a teddy bear, and the blanket, and the hygiene kit, and all these fun toys. When the kids got there, obviously it's an awkward and kind of a tense situation. You're meeting a family for the first time that's taking you in. You don't know how long you're going to be there. And so that family was able to greet them and say, “Hey. How about we take your belongings out of these trash bags?” And anything that doesn't fit inside the cupboards, or the dressers they have for you, or the closet, you can place in this really cool duffel bag that have been personalized for those kids.
One of the kids really liked Batman. He got a Batman Sweet Case. A other girl liked My Little Pony. She got a My Little Pony Sweet Case. It was just really cool that the family had thought about the kids ahead of time and that the kids can now replace those trash bags with something that is personalized to them.
Where can people learn more about Together We Rise and then consider donating?
If people wanted to learn more and get involved, they can just visit our website. And from there, you can learn about our programs, see if any of them tug on your heartstrings a little more than others. And you can donate towards those programs, or you can just learn about our organization in general.