Under a Leaf: Children in Foster Care and a Volunteer’s Appeal

stink bug nymph aggregate huddled near egg mass

Stink bug siblings huddling, recently emerged from their eggs.

I have been volunteering with Sibling Connections, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving youth in foster care who are separated from their siblings, for the past eight years. Yesterday, we completed one of our signature programs, Camp to Belong – Massachusetts (which is a national program across the United States, and also has a branch in Australia). The volunteer motto after camp concluded, went something like this, The most exhausting and the most rewarding week of the year. It is a hundred percent true, and I am feeling it in my bones and my heart today as I try to process all the joy and all the tears. As always, it was a non-stop week of meeting amazing children who have endured things so many of us cannot begin to imagine, yet are so vibrant and so much stronger than they appear; it was a buoying of the human spirit to see so many people give up their time in exchange for nothing but the reward in helping these children.

Now, as I thought about writing this post, as I was trying to stave off the overwhelming tide of emotions that inevitably follow Camp to Belong, I wondered reflexively why such things happen to inculpable children and why we as a society haven’t done more for them. As this is a site for arthropod photography, and as I spent a decent chunk of the past week explaining that the huge (they were huge!) orbweaver spiders all over the cabins at camp posed no threat to people, among other bug-related queries and concerns, I wondered how I might relate this post to bugs (as I do with most anything anyway). Then I remembered. I had taken some shots of stink bug nymphs just before I left for camp. It was really a perfect image: sibling nymphs (immature forms or “youthful” creatures, if you will) huddled together, entering the world in a group hug, before growing and eventually dispersing to create their own future generations of hugging siblings. They were inconspicuously gathered on the underside of a common milkweed leaf, and I venture confidently to say most people wouldn’t have noticed them. Unfortunately, this is also the case for youth in foster care; most people know they exist, but they don’t realize how close to home they are.

Before I was involved with Sibling Connections, I knew children lived with foster parents, in residential programs and in similar situations, but the problems and challenges they face never occurred to me. The idea of having separate lives from my brother and sisters or not even knowing they existed was unimaginable to me. To this day I can’t really wrap my mind around it, because I have not lived it. And yet these children live it day after day. Since I have met them; since I have talked to them; since I have heard their stories from their own mouths, their predicament is etched in my mind. Knowledge leads to awareness; it leads to empowerment. I believe we gain the best knowledge through direct experience; at least this is what I have found in my own journey. I now know wasps fly around a head because a person smells good to them, and once they realize there is no nectar, they fly away. My fears have become wasps themselves: they have flown away, and instead of being apart from a wasp, I am like one, in search of true nectar, of more knowledge. If you learn more about these children you will want to keep learning; you will want to help and empower them. And you can help them.

There are different ways to help. Money is the most facile way, but it is, of course, vital to and greatly appreciated by organizations like Sibling Connections. The most rewarding way, in my humble experience and opinion, is to become actively and directly involved in the lives of these children, be it through a program like Camp to Belong, mentoring, after-school programs, etc. This can be difficult for different reasons. Adoption can be the ultimate involvement, but it is not a realistic option for many of us. The problems of our own lives are overwhelming at times, and (as a specific example) donating a week of vacation time — as many of our volunteers do to be able to attend camp — is not necessarily the best way for a person to contribute. We don’t want to make commitments that we can’t follow through on and end up hurting someone by offering them unrealistic expectations and certain disappointment. But there are programs that are less time intensive (such as Sibling Sundays and Saturdays in Massachusetts) and other options such as fundraising, grant-writing, non-monetary donations (e.g. as clothing or school supplies), etc. Becoming involved in organizations like Re-envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) is a great way to begin fundraising and advocating for youth in foster care. Maybe one day, you will be the one to start an organization dedicated to helping children in foster care in a place where there is no such thing.

When people become involved in a cause, a movement, an art form, a cult of myth or personality — whatever human fascination or endeavor it may be — that involvement facilitates what is always a key factor in growing the endeavor: word of mouth, that basic chain of collective communication. If you’re involved you will want to tell others about these children and what they can do to help.

I just want to close by saying, many times I feel like I can’t give enough to the children I work with. I want to give everything I have, and then a little more, but this is a good way to hurt yourself. A week at camp can’t make these children’s problems go away just like that, dust your hands off, good job, we did it, hooray! No, it can’t, but sometimes I wish it could. It’s not really a sentiment that I have shaken free from after all this time, and inevitably I will remember an inconsolable child saying he has no home and his family will never be together, as I heard this year. When I heard that, it was a stark reminder that there is much more for us to do. I think on it now, and it seems hard to find a way forward. This is when I have to remember some of the good things: A teenage boy that I had known for five days from the previous year came up to me in the lunch line smiling big and gave me a big hug, so genuinely happy to see me. Another boy talking about how nervous he was to ride a horse, but going ahead and doing it anyway. A girl standing at her brother’s side, as he spoke in front of the whole camp, even though she was mad at him. A very young girl tired from all the excitement and activity, nestled in the arms of a counselor. Those are only a few from this year. They give the balance that gives me direction. I know I have something to carry me forward, when my contribution, and even my life in general, seems small and pointless. I know we helped some brothers and sisters make some memories to carry themselves forward.

I am drawing from my personal experience with one organization, so this article is distinctly tinted. Our goals, mission and experiences won’t be exactly the same as other organizations’, but I know there are people committed to this cause in places far and wide whose larger goal is the same. They are selfless people who may not be remembered by the children they serve, or who might not ever be known to those children in the first place as they work behind the scenes. I hope you’ll join those people; I know you’ll create something good for yourself and for these children.

[For more posts on my volunteer experiences, please click on the Camp to Belong or Sibling Connections tags below. Thanks for reading.]


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