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Many ways to make a child's life better

Posted: Friday, May 20, 2011

You can make a child's life better. Easily. With little work. Or with harder work -- whatever suits your fancy. I'll use May's Foster Care Awareness Month as my excuse to mention four great volunteer opportunities, three for individuals like you, and one for businesses that want to help.

Over the years I've worked with others to improve Alaska's foster care system -- one that has historically seen 40 percent of our youth end up homeless at some point after leaving foster care; and less than 10 percent make it through college. The criminal and other unhealthy statistics are as alarming. The Legislature has done a good job of looking at fixable problems, though lots more work needs to be done.

OK, with that, here's where you can come in, with the easiest options first.

Last year we started a mentorship program. We need more mentors across the state. Today, youth coming out of foster care have no parent to call when they need advice or help. No adult shoulder to lean on. No one to take them out for a dinner or lunch. Often, no one. What would your child's life be like if they couldn't call you when they needed help? Studies show mentorship breeds success in a system that breeds too much failure.

We have started a mentorship effort at two agencies. First, Big Brothers/Sisters and Covenant House recently received a small state grant to train and background check volunteer mentors, and they will do so long distance wherever they have an office -- and beyond with funds permitting. Want to be a mentor to a child leaving foster care and about to lose their link to a responsible adult? Call Danielle Pittner of Big Brothers Big Sisters at 433-4600. If they are not able to work in your part of the state, call Alaska Community Services, which has also been matching mentors. You can call Alexandra at 375-2207, or Jenny for rural mentorships.

Here's another easy one. At the suggestion of Julie Robinson, a local dentist and former foster parent, and with the help of my staff and Amanda Metivier when she worked in my office last summer (she's coordinator at Facing Foster care in Alaska) -- we launched an effort to get foster youth, and recent alumni, laptop computers. Why laptops? Because foster youth bounce between homes way, way too often. Laptops are sadly useful because they are portable. Like the lives of too many foster children in Alaska. A laptop lets youth keep family pictures, stay in touch with loved ones, and stay on top of their school work. The Carr Family Foundation has generously donated $10,000 for new computers, and dozens of you have donated late model, good, internet connectable laptops with word processing. We've made over 50 matches so far.

Have a good, late model laptop you want to donate? Call us at 269-0106.

Want harder work that will help transform a child's life? Alaska is in dire need for foster parents. A good foster parent can do more for a child than all the programs in the world. If you'd like to be a foster parent, call 800-478-7307. Today's foster parent shortage keeps us from placing youth in the best homes, and sometimes forces the state to separate siblings -- adding damage to a life already under threat of damage.

Finally, businesses can help. Three years ago we started a volunteer effort by stores to offer discount clothing to foster youth, called Foster Wear. Too often foster youth end up in school in second hand clothes. Children in trauma don't need to stand out any more than they do already. As in one case, they don't need to wear military surplus Bunny Boots in May. REI was the first store to help, and prove the program can work. Now we have over a half dozen stores across the state. We want more. If you'd agree to a 25-percent discount to foster youth, and 10 percent on sale items (we're negotiable if need be), call us. OCS has done a good job taking this program over and administering it. It's been fraud-free -- and heavy on positives.

So -- let's put aside the partisan fighting in politics, and stand together to make Alaska a better place. Together.

Rep. Les Gara is an Anchorage Democratic legislator. He can be reached at Rep.les.gara@legis.state.ak.us



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