In Together We Rise’s lobby, two words stood in prominent, silver block letters: “FOSTER LOVE.” On an adjacent wall, illuminated letters spelled out “FAMILY.”
It seemed symbolic, almost as if the two would inevitably unite. For children left to fend for themselves, that sense of unification is exactly what they long for.
Together We Rise (TWR) is a national nonprofit organization started in 2008 by Cal State Fullerton alumnus Danny Mendoza. The organization is dedicated to giving children who are transitioning into foster care “a sense of normalcy in their sometimes turbulent world,” according to TWR’s website.
While Mendoza was enrolled at CSUF, he discovered that his 9-year-old cousin, Roger, was living in a car. As a result, Roger was admitted into the foster care system. Desperate to come to the aid of his little cousin, but faced with numerous hardships due to his young age, Mendoza sold his video game console and set out to start his own nonprofit. He recruited his friends to help with the project, and Together We Rise was born.
The harsh reality is that in the United States, many children face adversities similar to Roger’s. There were approximately 397,000 children in foster care as of the last day of 2012, according to the Administration for Children and Families’ (ACF) Child Welfare Outcomes’ report to Congress.
The numbers have been on a steady rise since then, as documented in ACF’s Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which noted that there were 400,989 children in the system as of September 2013, and 415,129 foster youth in the following fiscal year. In comparison to the 73.6 million children that live in the United States as of 2014, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, it stands that approximately one in every 177 children are in the foster care system.
“That (transition) is scary for them and traumatic,” said Kathleen Ford, TWR partnership administrator. “If we can ease that transition and create a first positive interaction between the child and a social worker or the child and a police officer, that’s kind of what our hope is.”
When a child is admitted into foster care, he or she is given black trash bags to carry his or her belongings. The introduction of Sweet Cases by Together We Rise helps to ease the transition for children into new foster homes by giving children a duffel bag with free materials.
Ford recalled when she saw a picture of 4-year-old Antonio opening his gifted duffel bag in his foster parents’ home. His hands had unzip the royal blue, decorated bag, and inside there was a brand new blanket, a teddy bear, a hygiene kit, a coloring book and a box of crayons; necessities for most children. On the back of the photo, Antonio’s foster mother wrote “Antonio says, ‘you mean somebody that doesn’t know me loves me this much?’”
While some might think that replacing a trash bag with a duffel bag is a very insignificant act, Ford said, the effect it has on the foster youth is astronomical. April Posadas, TWR’s executive assistant, echoed the sentiment.
“I think that (the positive effect) is definitely important, especially coming from the situation that they’re coming from, not having their parents around or anything,” Posadas said. “Having these complete strangers reach out to them and do really nice things for them, it’s a world changer.”
The nonprofit’s wheels have continued turning with the commencement of the Build-A-Bike program, a way for volunteers to put together bicycles for foster youth.
The bicycles are versatile gifts. For some, they act as transportation to and from after-school programs and part-time jobs, while for others it offers the childhood memory of learning how to ride a bike.
The recently launched Family Fellowship program, in partnership with the Fund II Foundation, provides the largest scholarship available to foster youth nationwide. Established in March 2015, the Family Fellowship program provides its selected applicants up to $90,000 in scholarships, contributing to tuition, dorm supplies, meal plans and basic necessities that foster-raised adults aren’t accustomed to, Ford said. TWR’s goal is to create a “family-like atmosphere” for its selected candidates.
Every September, the organization runs a Disney Day. 200 foster kids are treated to the opportunity to explore Disneyland for the first time. Not only that, but many are reunited with siblings that they were separated from.
While TWR doesn’t have a direct hand in the placement process for foster children, their contributions can still have a great impact on the adoption process. Posadas recalled a Disney Day trip in which a volunteer couple fell in love with the kids in their group and adopted them.
“It’s kind of a cool thing to see that one little involvement with something sparks this greater picture,” Ford said.
While adversity may face Together We Rise, their resolve remains unshakable.
“We all are young and we don’t have everything figured out, but that doesn’t stop any of us,” Ford said. “We do all the nitty-gritty type stuff so we don’t always get to be out there and have fun but, when we do, it makes it all worth it and pushes all of us to kind of keep going.”