Supporting Teens in Foster Care
The next time you’re out in your community, take a look around at the teens and youth who you see. Chances are, you’ll see one or two youth who are in foster care, or who have been involved with the system. You may not know them, but someone in your neighborhood or school or congregation has been a foster parent, works for the system, or has supported a family member through involvement with the Department of Human Services. You might not have been involved with “the system” yourself, but no one is more than a step or two removed.
Life for kids in foster care is never easy, and teens are often overlooked. Their needs are multi-faceted and challenging. They carry trauma and loss well beyond their years and yet they are just like every other teen. They will be the first to tell you that they have had to manage situations that they were not equipped for. They will also be the first to stand up and say “please, don’t treat me any differently.” But they need community support. The lack of foster homes and available service providers in Multnomah County makes it difficult for teens to get everything they need to be successful. Teens frequently get the leanest side of an already underfunded and overburdened foster care system.
See a Need, Fill a Need
In 2013, while Amy Bunker was working as a case worker for the Oregon Department of Human Services, she spearheaded a drive to get holiday gifts for the kids in her unit at the Alberta Child Welfare office. Through her efforts, the drive was able to provide presents for over 200 children that Christmas.
Word got around that Amy had the present connection, and in 2017 some former caseworkers approached her with a need to give teens in foster care holiday presents. Amy jumped at the chance. She received wish lists for about 95 foster teens and developed a Facebook group with the goal of matching these lists with people that wanted to help. Within a few days, 50 friends and family had joined, with the group growing to 400 within two weeks.
That’s when Amy realized that she had latched onto something. Now she needed help with running this newly formed entity. She called her friend Jennifer Boling, a born organizer, who could help manage this burgeoning program. That first Christmas, Howard’s Heart (named after Amy’s grandfather) was able to fulfill every one of those teens’ wish lists.
The two women realized there was real enthusiasm for supporting teens in foster care (which is how they learned teens in care want to be referred to as opposed to foster teens.) However, they also saw a lack of education and knowledge in the community at large around what these teens needed, along with how services and items could be provided to the teens. It was eye opening for the donors that teens were asking for things that other teens would take for granted; they asked for items such as cell phone minutes, bicycles, winter jackets, shoes, and even underwear.
After that initial holiday, donors continued joining the Facebook group, which showed Amy and Jennifer that people were willing to help teens in care all year-round. The pair reached back out to their contacts at DHS as well as the teens themselves to ask the question “What do you WANT? The teens were delighted. No one had ever asked them what they wanted. Offered this new opportunity, the “Special Requests” as they are known inside Howard’s Heart, became more varied. One teen had an opportunity to take a trip with their school band. Another teen wanted wireless ear buds. Yet another asked for a rock-climbing pass so that he and his brother could spend time together. These requests go up on the Howard’s Heart Facebook group wall and Champions (the term they use for donors) post via comment that they’ll either provide the cash in order to purchase the item, or they’ll buy the item themselves.
Branching Out and Giving More
In 2019 Howard’s Heart began serving all five DHS child welfare teen units in Multnomah County. Current data shows around 700 teens in foster care throughout Multnomah County. Howard’s Heart served between 415-430 of those kids. They are now accessible to every teen in the foster care system in the county, with all case workers now being familiar with Howard’s Heart.
Once Howard’s Heart developed enough rapport with the case workers to assure them that the operation would follow through with their promises, the case workers began to spread the word among their foster parents and other organizations that work with teens.
In addition to working with case workers from DHS, Howard’s Heart also has CASAs (Court Appointed Special Advocates), mentors, and attorneys reaching out to them for assistance. Most importantly, they are now accessible directly to the teens they serve via email and text.
Since the organization’s founding, there have been many great stories of fulfilling teen’s special requests. One example is that of a teen that had the opportunity to travel to New York City with her school’s drama troupe. This was a huge educational opportunity for her and she really wanted to go; however, the full cost of $3000 was out of DHS’ reach. The caseworker reached out to Howard’s Heart, which in turn put the request out to their Facebook group. They were able to raise a large chunk of this money. At the last minute, with some fundraising still left, they decided to do an auction to raise the remainder. Howard’s Heart reached out to local businesses, asking them to donate items such as gift certificates, cakes, and wine tours. It went so well that auction made more than enough to send the teen on her trip as well as fund additional special requests through the year.
Another story involved a young teen who identified piano playing as something that might relieve a lot of anxiety in his life. Howard’s Heart was able to partner with Ethos, a music non-profit in Portland, who offered to donate lessons for a fairly inexpensive cost. Howard’s Heart put the word out to its Champions, and were able to fund the lessons. A Champion who loves piano also bought him a keyboard so he could practice at home.
Amy talked to his case worker after the lessons and asked him how the teen was doing; she learned that although the teen had moved several times, the keyboard, unlike many of their belongings, had traveled with him. The case worker then shared the inside story about the keyboard. When this teen received the keyboard, they asked the case worker, “What do I have to do to keep this?” The caseworker said, “Nothing. Just enjoy it. Use it, don’t use it. It’s yours now.”
Occasionally, teens that are served through Howard’s Heart reach out and want to thank their donors; Howard’s Heart will facilitate this but it’s not a requirement or an expectation. There is a premium put on not asking the teens for anything in return, as so much of their experience has come with ‘strings attached’.
While Howard’s Heart still gets the majority of their donations through the Special Requests they put up on Facebook, local business and corporate donations are growing. In the past year, they’ve been fortunate enough to partner with some larger companies for donations. Recently, a tech company from San Francisco donated several computers. Another company donated several laptops. But unlike other charity operations, Howard’s Heart works on an “ask-by-ask” basis. Because they try to cater to individual teens’ wishes, the items they need are often one-offs. A good example of this is a teen that needed a dresser for the bedroom of her first apartment. A Portland-based company named Lounge Lizard donated was able to donate the dresser. Another company, Northwest Office Liquidations was able to donate a desk and chair for that same youth.
Howard’s Heart now has over 100 different businesses that are involved with the organization. Amy commented that they have great support from the Portland business community. “We were nominated for four company giving campaigns this year, which was a surprise to us and made us cry when they came in. These unexpected chunks of change make dreams come true for our teens in need.”
Even though Howard’s Heart has been blessed to receive incredible support from its Champions and business donors, they work hard to make sure their dollars go as far as they can. For example, if a teen has a particular request involving clothes, Howard’s Heart may direct the case worker to another non-profit that specializes in clothing. If the request isn’t available through an existing organization, other businesses will then be called. For instance, a teen needed special work boots that Project Lemonade, one of Howard Heart’s community partners, couldn’t provide. They called Danner Boots in Portland and they were able to donate the boots.
In addition to Special Requests, Howard’s Heart has branched out to other initiatives in an effort to further help these teens in foster care.
One program is their “Essentials Boxes.” Through Amy’s background and the organization’s interaction with DHS, they noticed a trend. Teens first coming into care needed hygiene products that were actually appropriate for their skin and hair type. Instead of the case worker having to wait the week or even a few days for a request to be approved, or alternately having to go out and purchase these items out of their own pocket, Howard’s Heart provided the DHS teen units with large totes full of essentials like deodorant, shampoo, and feminine hygiene products, that cater to all different skin and hair types. This way, the teen can go into the tote and get the products that they want.
Amy and Jennifer heard from teens in care that the backpacks they were provided were really for younger kids and were full of items such as crayons and toys. To change this, Howard’s Heart launched an annual Backpack Drive, which is held from June to September every year to provide teens with a quality backpack and age-appropriate school supplies. They’ve aligned with local community partners that have committed to donating these items.
The Lloyd Center in Portland, working specifically with Ann Grimmer, donated a storefront, which allows the organization to set up a free store where kids can come and pick out their own backpack and the supplies they need. Items include things like spiral notebooks, graphing calculators, highlighters, whiteout, etc.
Lloyd Center has also started helping in another way. They often have bicycles in their lost and found, and after hearing that Howard’s Heart needed bikes to give to teens for transportation, they offered to donate them. A local bike organization named Bikes for Humanity also volunteered to fix them up for free.
When Howard’s Heart didn’t have room for the original shipment of 12 bikes, Jennifer started calling around to various storage facilities in Portland. Rose City Self Storage and Wine Vaults was one of those she called. Adam Louder, Rose City’s manager, immediately said yes, they would be happy to donate space for these to be stored.
The Holiday drive is Howard’s Heart’s biggest event in a short timeframe. Starting in November, they ask the teens in foster care for three items: a want, a wish, and a need. They then put these kids requests up one by one on Facebook or they send the requests to local businesses that want to sponsor a certain number of teens. Howard’s Heart gets the items back before Christmas and has their volunteers wrap the presents and get them to the case workers so that these teens will have presents under the tree at Christmas.
Howard’s Heart has grown faster than either Amy or Jennifer ever thought. To date, total of 59,600 items have been donated. The organization has a core group of two to five volunteers that run the operation alongside of many other volunteers that have helped with initiatives throughout the year. In the last year, around 150 people volunteered at Howard’s Heart in one capacity or another. For 2020, Amy and Jennifer say that they hope to hire a part-time executive director, which would be their first employee.
They are also planning on revamping the Essentials Boxes program in 2020 so that they can better stock the totes at each teen unit around the city. A couple of local businesses have agreed to do a collection once a year to collect certain items. For instance, a mechanic shop is asking for customers to donate deodorant during the month of March. A coffee shop will be collecting shampoo and conditioner. Their goal is to have one or two businesses a month doing an essentials drive. This will allow them to keep the essentials boxes stocked throughout the year.
For the month of February, Howard’s Heart is also having their first-ever giving campaign to raise money to further fund the organization’s operational expenses. Donations can be given via their website on the Events page at howardsheart.org.
For area teens in foster care, Howard’s Heart fills a vital role in the Portland community by giving them the support they need to pursue their goals and dream.
If you are interested in getting the Howard’s Heart newsletter or learning how you can help, please check out their website: howardsheart.org.
About the Author: Derek Hines
Internet Marketing Specialist
Derek is originally from the great state of Wisconsin (go Badgers), but is slowly becoming a Pacific Northwesterner. As part of the Internet Marketing team, he writes extensively on storage, moving and life for West Coast Self-Storage, based in Everett, Washington.