Friday, December 22, 2006

National Care Package program for foster care alumni attending college

Brighten college life of ex-foster children
McCaffrey, Eileeen. Lexington Herald-Leader, Sept. 21, 2006 pg. A15.

Every year at this time, parents start receiving a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from children settling in at college. But for young people raised in foster care, there is no one to report back to about roommates, classes and dorm food -- no home for them to visit.

These children are more alone than ever, facing the daunting responsibilities of paying tuition, keeping a roof over their heads, studying and making day-to-day adult decisions.

More than 25,000 youths age out of foster care in the United States annually. After years of being bounced from home to home, school to school and family to family, overnight they are on their own -- sink or swim.

The reality of being 18 and ill-equipped for adulthood leads to bleak statistics: 1 in 5 will become homeless, 1 in 4 incarcerated and 1 in 3 unemployed within a few years of leaving foster care. Keeping a roof over their heads is their goal; higher education is a distant dream.

Yet other former foster youths optimistically head off to colleges, universities and trade schools all across the country. - LIKE ME

These young people do not let the lack of emotional support or financial assistance from parents deter them from their dreams. Each begins school hoping to meet new friends, learn new things and start a new chapter in their lives. Yet the back-to-school rituals their peers take for granted -- loading up the family car with new clothes and dorm room supplies and awaiting care packages sent by parents -- are a constant reminder of how alone they are.

To recognize the promise and potential of foster youths in college, corporations and foundations join with members of Congress each year to assemble care packages delivered to dorm rooms across the country.

Spearheaded by the Orphan Foundation of America, the National Care Package Program distributes 7,500 parcels throughout the school year. The contents -- all donated -- include backpacks, cookies, gift cards, software and linens. Each package also contains a handwritten message of good wishes and respect from the person who assembled the box.

"I love the stuff, but my favorite thing in the care package is the encouraging words on the card," said Taneika Tate, a University of Alabama student who receives OFA care packages.

The items are small, but their impact is tremendous. Helen Sharp, an Indiana college student and care package recipient said, "Being a kid who moved a lot and never got a lot, a care package is great to receive. It makes me feel special."

On Capitol Hill in Washington today, the National Care Package Program will kick off its annual event designed to raise awareness about the needs of youths aging out of foster care.

Volunteers will join business leaders and former foster children to assemble packages and write notes that encourage and celebrate the recipients' goals.

In this land of plenty, the program is an opportunity to show deserving young people that the community is behind them. It won't fill all their voids, but it might make their dorm rooms feel more like a home.

As Jayrome Beckers, a criminal justice major at a New York college, said: "I received my care package -- everything in it was great and I needed it all, you really made my week. My roommate asked if it was from my family; I proudly said yes."

EILEEN MCCAFFREY
Executive director of the Orphan Foundation of America in Sterling, VA

To learn more about the National Care Package program and how you can get involved, visit the Web site www.orphan.org

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