On any given day, there are more than 400,000 kids in the U.S. foster care system. Some of those kids are in the system for days or weeks, while others spend months or years bouncing from home to home to home—and every single one of them has experienced trauma.
May is National Foster Care Month, which means it’s the perfect time to show kids in care that they are seen. But how do you do that, short of becoming a foster parent or a social worker yourself? The people who work with and care for kids in foster care play a critical role, but these kids need more than one or two adults in their corner—they need a whole village.
What’s it like for kids in foster care?
To say these kids are facing an uphill battle would be putting it mildly: They are often removed from their homes and their biological families with very little (or no) warning, which means the vast majority of their belongings are left behind. They may be too young—or too traumatized—to speak about the experiences that led to their time in care, let alone process them.
They may be old enough to be in full-time school, but have attended so sporadically or changed schools so many times that their performance falls below their potential. They may have gone hungry, which can cause them to hoard food. They may be overmedicated, wrongly diagnosed, or completely overlooked.
How you can help kids in foster care
I have to start with my favorite organization and the one most likely to bring an immediate smile to a kid’s face: One Simple Wish. Kids in care are able to submit wish requests, via their caseworkers, to the organization. Donors can search wishes by age, gender, location, price, category, or urgency.
The wishes truly are simple—things like new shoes, a basketball hoop, a swim suit, or a duffle bag to take to camp. It’s the sort of stuff you might buy for your own kids without really thinking about it. You can send the child a personalized note and select a box that will notify you if that child ever submits another wish request.
One thing I love most about this organization is that while kids age out of the foster care system around 18-21 years old, former foster youth never “age out” of One Simple Wish. That means that young adults who were in care can submit wishes for things like furniture, items to set up their dorm rooms, personal care products, or even gift cards for groceries.
(Full disclosure: I am on the board of directors of One Simple Wish, but I was a donor/supporter long before that because I believe so deeply in its mission.)
How to become a court-appointed advocate
Kids who spend significant portions of their childhood in foster care often have very little consistency or stability in terms of both housing and the adults they work with. Turnover is high in this field and the older kids get, the more often they tend to be moved. That’s where the CASA/GAL (Court-Appointed Special Advocates and Guardians ad Litem) organization comes in.
Trained volunteer CASA/GALs are appointed by a judge to advocate in court for a child’s best interest. Quality CASAs and GALs spend a significant amount of time with the child, and because they are asked to stick with a case from start to finish, CASAs often are the one consistent person in the child’s life while they’re in care.
Ask your local foster care agency how you can help
Want to help kids in care in your community but not sure how? Find a local foster care agency, call them up and ask how you can help. They may need volunteers for a clothing drive, or some help with a fundraising event, or some new toys for their playroom. Maybe you even have a skill or expertise that could be put to use—for instance, they might need someone to freshen up their lobby with a coat of paint or help design some new marketing materials.
If they don’t have a specific pressing need, they likely know of another partner organization in your area that does and can point you in the right direction.
This article was originally published in 2019. It was updated on May 19, 2021 with new information and to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.