We’ve discussed before how the community can help foster families. This time of year, there is an even greater need for community support. Foster parents have the same holiday to-do lists as every other family. In addition, they have to find time to help their foster kids connect with biological parents, deal with their sadness over being separated, and navigate family gatherings with people they don’t know. This holiday season offers many opportunities for the community to help both foster children and foster families. Below are some ways that either individuals or groups can help those within their networks.
• Donations and service projects. Helping already established organizations is a simple and effective way to contribute. Check in your area for foster closets, mentoring organizations, or gift drives that support foster families.
• Gifts for foster children. If you know a foster family, or your area has an organization that provides gifts for foster children, find out what help they need. These groups usually get specific wish lists from foster children, so you know that you are getting a gift that the child actually wants.
If you are helping a family directly, be sure to include all of the children, both biological and foster. I have seen well-meaning people overcompensate for foster children, showering them with gifts and inadvertently setting up conflict and competition. On the other hand, foster parents’ extended family often overlook the foster child, leaving them feeling not part of the family. The foster family may appreciate having extra gifts on hand for the foster kids to make up the imbalance. Work with the foster parents to help in either situation and be sure that no child feels left out.
• Help with To-Do Lists. Ask foster parents what’s on their lists that you can do instead. Maybe they need help putting up Christmas decorations, getting kids to various school events, or contributing to the classroom parties. Most of the foster parents’ tasks probably are ones that only they can do, but there will be other things that you can help with. Simply ask them what they need and, if they can’t think of anything right away, keep asking. Foster parents aren’t used to asking for or getting help, and it may take them a bit to realize that you really are available.
• Give Foster Parents A Break. If your state’s rules allow, offer to watch the foster kids while parents take some time for themselves. They may need to do some Christmas shopping or just have an adult dinner together. Giving them that time may be the best gift you can give.
• Help the Kids with Christmas Gifts. We discussed earlier why we need to help kids stay in touch with and have presents for their biological family. If the agency rules require supervised visits, ask if you can qualify as a periodic supervisor. Volunteer to help the kids create a present for their parents and siblings, or take them shopping to buy gifts. Don’t forget to suggest gifts for foster parents, who likely will appreciate a written note more than physical gifts. Don’t push the kids beyond their comfort levels, but be available to help with what they are willing to do.
• Help Siblings Celebrate Together. This season is about family. Many foster children, however, are in placements separated from their siblings. Offer to spearhead or help with events that the sibling groups can enjoy together. The occasion can be small, such as an afternoon baking cookies while the respective parents have some time to run errands. Or you can help you church or civic group sponsor a larger event for sibling groups in your area. Work with your local government or private placement agency to see what rules they have and how your group can create a positive and memorable event.
• Remember Kids Who Have Aged Out. One often-overlooked groups is former foster kids who have aged out of the system without connecting with a permanent family. These young adults often miss out on the events geared toward kids who are still in the system. Look for independent living programs in your area, or mentoring groups geared toward aging-out youth. Ask the group what their young adults need. You may be asked to provide just presents, maybe a family for them to spend Christmas Day with, or help with a group event at the program. There are many ways you can have an impact with this underserved age group.
Whatever your resources, there are many opportunities to help foster youth and their families this holiday season. Look for already established programs, or start a tradition of your own. Taking advantage of the opportunities will not only help young people, but also give you rewarding connections to wonderful people in your community.