Summer is often home to childhood’s most poignant memories. Grass stained knees. Hands covered in the stick of melted ice cream. The shock of cool, chlorinated water on a blistering afternoon.
School is always right around the corner though. Summer’s end is usually synonymous with taking on new, exciting subjects and reuniting with good friends – ‘typical’ kid stuff. For nearly 500 children in Bergen County, NJ though, their experience this year will be anything but, ‘typical.’
500 children abused and neglected so badly, that the Department of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) had to separate them from their parents. 500 children who can’t afford the appropriate supplies to get them through the school year. 500 children who don’t have brand new outfits to show off to their peers. 500 children who will likely have to move school districts 1-2 times throughout the year and 5+ throughout their time in the system.
Rachel, is one of those 500 children. She’s 9 years old and about to start her first day of 3rd grade. The first thing she notices when she steps on the bus, is the clash of her hand-me-down clothes, ratty, faded backpack, and sparsely filled lunch box, against everyone else’s brand-new amenities. It doesn’t help that this is a new school district, her 3rd one in the past year. So, once again, she’s the new kid. Making new friends in an ocean of strangers is already difficult. Rachel will do so, knowing full well that she might have to bid them goodbye at a moment’s notice.
Shift to Thomas and Matthew. These brothers are 12 and 13, respectively, and both have just woken up early in order to make their 45-minute trek to school. It’s not uncommon that the DCP&P will suggest keeping children in a certain district, even if they’ve just moved four towns away. This helps the boys keep their friendships, but it’s made it difficult for them to get their homework done and their grades have begun to suffer. Not to mention that they’ve had to drop from their athletic teams, because transportation to practices and games has become impossible to find.
500 other children will go through the same.
“You’re only way out of your situation, is to stay in school.” Regina Calcaterra, attorney and author of the bestselling book Etched in Sand, describes this quote from one of her teachers as one of the most significant, formative moments in her journey through the foster care system. In the midst of all the suffering Regina and her four siblings endured, she had books and learning as her one true constant among the chaos.
This is the truth for so many children experiencing similar trauma. School is supposed to be a place of escape, a place of belonging, and a place where children can thrive – no matter where they come from. At the end of the day though, it’s simple things like not having a new notebook on the first day or not being able to make it to soccer practice that hurt their experience the most. Things that so many of us take for granted.
“Donating school supplies and backpacks, is an excellent way to help mitigate a child’s insecurities,” comment’s Bergen CASA advocate and retired lawyer, Nilene Evans. Even the smallest of donations helps. One the same note, Bergen County CASA recommends donating gift cards, from stores like Walmart and Target. The ability to choose isn’t one they’re often given. So, handing a child money and allowing them to pick out their own backpack, their own notebook, and their own clothes is unbelievably empowering.
Even more empowering for them, is their potential to pull themselves out of their situation and prosper. However, a recent study showed that only 3% of youth obtain a bachelor’s degree after aging out and another illustrated that only about 50% graduate from high school. This means there’s a lot of work to be done. Foster children have enough going on, school needs to be a place that emboldens their ambitions. Making their experience a little more normal, is all it takes to set them up for success.
Click here, to learn how you can become a driving force for change in a foster child’s life.