My Turn: Alaska’s foster children need help, homes

  • By LES GARA
  • Thursday, December 3, 2015 1:00am
  • Opinion

All children should have a loving home and the opportunity to succeed. That’s unfortunately not the case for many of Alaska’s foster youths. Today, 40 percent end up homeless or couch-surfing at someone else’s home at some point after leaving foster care. About 17 percent end up in jail. Our foster youth come from and live in every corner of our state and are our neighbors.

As we think about our holiday blessings, I’d like generous communities to know there are many things we can do to help — some are easier and some take more time. Or maybe you know someone who can help if you can’t.

I lost my father when I was six. His life, and the lives of every person at his office, were taken by a person who wielded ill will and a knife. As a result, my brother and I grew up in foster care. I now understand that I was lucky to have relative stability, which is crucial to children whose lives have been uprooted.

Life for foster youth in Alaska is much tougher than it was for me. Many of the youth I know — because of a vast shortage of adoptive and foster parents — get bounced between five, 10, and sometimes more than 20 temporary foster homes as the state tries to find a long-term foster family who can offer stability, love and care. I’ve met too many foster youth who every single day simply have to clear too many hurdles in school, at home and in life. The number of Alaska foster youth has surged by over 50 percent in the past five years and now tops 2,800.

These are reasons why I’ve worked with other Alaskans to start and promote volunteer efforts that allow all of us to help bring success to these youth. As a legislator I’ll keep working for reforms so foster youth have an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed in life. But there is much we can do today as volunteers.

Contrary to what many think, the highest goal is to get a child in foster care out of that system and into a permanent home with loving parents. That saves the state money and saves a child pain. On the road to that goal we need good foster parents who will provide guidance and care.

There are smaller things we can do that make a big difference. They range from donating a laptop so an older child can succeed in school, carry family pictures and memories, and communicate with friends. If you own or manage a clothing store, consider offering discounts to foster youth.

We’ve started a volunteer effort called FosterWear. Through that effort, great businesses in urban and rural Alaska offer quality new clothing to foster youth at discount. New clothing means a lot to a child who has little else. If you own or manage a business and want to help, call Yuri at the Office of Children’s Services at (907) 451-5075.

If you want to donate a new or used laptop, it should be no more than five years old, runs fast and has a word processor. You can also donate to help purchase a laptop. We can get you in touch with the right person at Facing Foster Care in Alaska, which works with caseworkers to match computers with older youth (contact 907-269-0106 or rep.les.gara@akleg.gov). We’ll try our best to match a donated laptop with a child in your community.

Want to open your loving home to a child who doesn’t have one? We need good foster parents and parents who’ll adopt a child out of foster care (the state covers the cost of adopting foster youth). Contact the Alaska Center for Resource Families at (907) 279-1799.

Thanks to the current and former foster youth at Facing Foster Care in Alaska, including Director Amanda Metivier, for working with us to start the laptop and FosterWear efforts. We’re lucky to have youth who want to make life better for those who follow them.

And we’re lucky to have so many generous people throughout this state.

• Rep. Les Gara is a Democrat from Anchorage serving in the Alaska House of Representatives.

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