The term family reunion conjures up all sorts of thoughts and memories. Typically, such intergenerational family gatherings are fun, amusing and uplifting even though nearly everyone has a relative that makes even the kindest soul think, Am I really related to Aunt Whose-it? Yikes.
However, if you have absolutely no known family and grew up in foster care, and you have lived with but not fully been a part of many foster families, you probably cannot imagine what it is like to celebrate a grandfathers 80th birthday or go to a cousin or nieces graduation.
Most of the over 12 million adults who grew up in the United States foster care system would welcome the chance to be a part of a big family get-together with relatives of all ages. Last weekend, the Alexandria-based organization Foster Care Alumni of America took a step towards filling the lack of foster family bonds by creating the first annual Together 2008: Alumni Family Reunion.
Last Saturday, more than 500 foster care alumni gathered in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Washington, California and Texas for the Alumni Family Reunion. Nathan Monell, executive director of Foster Care Alumni of America, stated that, Often, youth in Virginia, the greater Washington, D.C. area and across the nation who are placed in foster care are separated from brothers and sisters, friends and family. He continued, Most foster care alumni will never be invited to a family reunion or other traditional family gatherings. They will never eat favorite family recipes, play a game, or sit around and share stories about the past. [Saturdays] event transforms the classic family reunion into a community event, creating lasting memories for many foster care alumni nationwide. This year we have 500 foster care alumni at our picnics, and we hope to grow the Alumni Family Reunion exponentially each year going forward.
Similarly, Deputy Director of FCAA Misty Stenslie said, Our society is built around families, and when you grow up without one, it is easy to feel isolated and different. The need for a family doesnt disappear when you hit adulthood everyone needs someone to mourn or celebrate with, a place to go for the holidays, a feeling of belonging no matter what happens. We hope the picnics help folks connect with one another.
Scores of northern Virginia foster care alumni attended the picnic and had a super time. One of the attendees was Chauncey Strong of Alexandria. Strong and his two brothers (triplets) were placed in foster care at the age of 4; he was pleased they could grow up together in the same foster home. Family ties are important to Strong especially since, in the past two years, his two brothers, adopted mom and biological mom all died. While sad about the loss of his loved ones, Strong said that, FCAAs Alumni Family Reunion helps reinforce that there are people who want to make the connection with other former foster care children and be a part of something.
Moreover, Strong hopes that not only will more former foster care children become involved with the FCAA, but that they will want to mentor kids currently in or about to age out of foster care. He mentors his nieces and nephews and participates in the Mentor Match program with children in foster care. In addition, Strong will be contributing his time as he takes on the role of Chairman of the National Foster Care Alumni board.
Another picnicker was Patrick Plourde, who was in foster care with the same foster family from the age of 12. My foster mom was generous. Her own biological kids had grown and she welcomed us in to her home. While I was living with her, we had over 50 foster care children come and stay with us for varying lengths of time, said Plourde. Just like Strong, Plourde is returning the kindness shown to him by his foster mom; he has a 17-year-old foster son and his fiance is open to having more foster children in their home after they are married. Plourde did a tour in the National Guard after he graduated from high school, and then he went to college. Now, he works for the Commonwealth of Virginia as an Independent Living Program Specialist for Social Services. I want to help other foster kids figure out how to make it in life when they age out, added Plourde.
Increasingly, children are aging out of the foster care system and often with no familial safety net. In Virginia today, there are more than 7,800 children in foster care, with each one spending an average of more than two years in foster care. Forty percent will experience three or more moves while in care. In 2006, 979 young people aged out of foster care in Virginia without a family to rely on or a home to return to or visit.
FCAA is trying to reinforce and assist the former foster care kids who are now adults with no strong familial support structure through events and programs like the Alumni Family Reunion. The association was formed as a result of a 1999 Casey Family Programs research study that found that adults coming out of foster care frequently had no safety net and no group that they could belong to where others could relate to what they had been through or what they were going through.
Phil Quinn, an Alumni Picnic attendee, stated that This picnic is a great tradition to start because people will inevitably connect like they do at a high school or college reunion and find that they have a common bond and experiences.
For more information about FCAA or to make a donation, go to www.fostercarealumni.org or call 703-299-6767.