“I found my family at Walmart”
A foster care alum writes about the friends, colleagues, and strangers who helped her succeed after aging out of care.
In the foster care system, there’s an expiration date. When you hit 18 or 21, you are no longer the responsibility of the state.
When that day came for me, in many ways, I was more fortunate than most. I’d graduated from high school. I had a little bit of money and job experience from working at fast food restaurants after school and in the summers. I was able to rent a 400 square foot apartment, which my foster parents helped me furnish with basic necessities—a bed, mismatched dishes, a couple of towels, and washcloths. And I had an independent living counselor who gave me a monthly stipend from the state and helped me navigate my first few months in this confusing new world.
In other ways, I faced the same problems as many kids who age out of foster care. I didn’t know how to do a lot of things that people take for granted—how to open a checking account or even write a check. I had a little bit of money, but no credit history. I was living paycheck to paycheck and constantly afraid that I would lose what little I had and become homeless.
I was determined to go to college and be secure and successful in life, and I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. So I sought out the kind of guidance and confidence in friends and in strangers that people normally would find in their parents or family.
I learned not to be embarrassed to ask for help. And I realized that sometimes, I didn’t even have to ask. Two people who changed the trajectory of my life were a colleague at Walmart and her husband who invited me to stay in their basement after she overheard me saying that I was losing my apartment. I lived with them for four years, during which time they helped me first get an associate’s degree and get out of credit card debt, among other things.
The good news is that you don’t have to invite someone to live with you to change their life! There are myriad ways to help children in foster care and who are aging out. Here are a few examples based on my experience.
- Be a mentor. Many local nonprofits have volunteer programs that match kids in foster care with adults who can help them gain life skills, explore educational opportunities, and let them know that they are not alone. You may be that one person who is their guardian angel.
- Be a good neighbor and colleague. When I aged out, I figured out how to open a checking account, but I didn’t know how to write a check! I knocked on my neighbor’s door and asked her to help me—and she did! Even today, when I see my checkbook, I think of her. My coworkers at Walmart were similarly welcoming—the greeters, the family who took me in. I often tell people that, in many ways, I found my family at Walmart.
- Take a chance. When I needed to get a new car and didn’t have any credit, I asked my hairdresser if she wouldn’t mind co-signing for me, and she did. She knew my story and how hard I was trying. I did whatever it took to pay that car off and never had a late payment.
- Become a CASA volunteer. They’re called volunteer guardian ad litems (GAL) in states like mine, and they are appointed to represent the best interests of kids in care in court. I remember my GAL as a grandma type who was very caring. Because of the help she gave me, I later volunteered with the program for five years.
- Donate clothes, bikes, school supplies, Kindles, etc., to foster care organizations. I didn’t have a bike until I was 13 years old. The first time I got on, I ran right into a trailer next door! In elementary school, I picked blackberries to buy school supplies. If kids don’t have the tools, how can they be successful?
- Make blankets to share with foster kids. A crocheted blanket or other cuddly item that a child can take when moving from one home to another can help them feel secure when everything is changing around them. For me, a teddy bear was the one tangible item that gave me some sort of comfort growing up.
- Educate yourself about the realities of foster care and become an advocate. There is such a stigma out there, with people thinking that children have done something to be in care. Learn the facts, and raise your voice!
- If you have a group home in your area, make a holiday meal for the kids and staff. It’s so simple and such a nice gesture for them to see that the community cares about them.