together we Rise: Kids Helping Kids In Need
According to the Congressional Coalition On Adoption Institute, approximately 400,000 kids are living without permanent families in the foster care system in the United States, currently. Think about that number for a moment....truly think. Or better yet, break it down to the number of innocent hearts and minds forced to live with the possibility that they may never go home again -- their family units, broken, with little reassurance of eventual repair. How are these kids suppose to cope, when so many live in 'wait and wonder?'
It's a question that Danny Mendoza faced, suddenly, through the unexpected placement of his 9 year-old cousin into foster care. But Danny, a child himself at the time, didn't just sit around and "think." Danny answered that question through the launch of an incredible organization, together we Rise, which helps foster care kids accept their fates with as much dignity and hope as possible.
Danny's team is made up of mostly kids, young people eager to lend a hand to children whose futures hang in the balance but whose "present circumstances" needn't leave them feeling valueless or alone. So successful has he been in rallying the involvement of tweens, teens, and college-age students, that my own child - who attends a University clear across the country from this organization - became involved and then brought it to my attention.
You will come to learn that my daughter is not unique in her reaction to learning about all of the good together we Rise is doing for foster kids. It seems she is part of a growing movement to change the way children enter, remain in, and exit the foster care system in the United States -- children leading for the betterment of other children and, truthfully, all mankind.
Sometimes, the most innovative answers arise out of the most innocent of minds. I believe, this is one of those times. Thus, I urge you to read the interview below and get involved, yourself. More needs to be done to remedy the cause, the system, and the injuries these kids continue to sustain. Frankly, one too many parents have already let them down, don't you think?
What is the mission of together we Rise?
together we Rise is a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the way youth navigate through the foster care system in America.
Share the story which became the catalyst to the launch of this organization.
In 2008, Danny Mendoza founded together we Rise after he discovered that his 9 year-old cousin was living in a car and as a result, was being placed in the foster care system. He wanted to do something to help but ran into many obstacles due to being under the age of 21. There weren’t many organizations around that created a way to help kids in foster care without becoming a foster parent, and there certainly weren’t any that would allow students to help or, at least, have a role large enough to make a substantial difference. Through encouragement and perseverance, a movement was created to change the way 'youth' experience foster care that welcomed young individuals to join the efforts.
TWR has three main programs: Sweet Cases, Build-A-Bike and Family Fellowship. Our Sweet Case program aims to provide foster youth, age 0-10, with brand new duffel bags and basic necessities so they don’t have to travel from home to home with what little belongings they may have in a trash bag. Our Build-A-Bike program helps to provide a form of transportation for our older foster youth so that they can get 'to and from' school, tutoring, mentoring, after-school programs or part-time jobs. For the little ones, its about giving them a childhood memory to cherish. Lastly, our Family Fellowship program provides the largest scholarship available to foster youth. Over the course of 5 years, we provide up to $90,000 to help with tuition assistance, dorm supplies, meal plans, books, laptops, tutors etc. Aside from these basic necessities, the Family Fellowship program provides emotional support and a family-like atmosphere to the youth selected. For so long they have had to navigate the world on their own and we hope to let them know that they are no longer alone.
Explain a bit about your organization.
We are advocates. We are unique individuals who are ready to see change in this world and are eager to pursue it. As a non-profit, our team is compiled of 14 passionate staff members who work, day in and day out, to make a difference in the lives of foster children across the U.S. We are able to operate on a national level through the dedication of over 100 interns who bring our programs to their college campuses and communities, as well as, through the support from individual families, schools, churches, Girl and Boy Scout troops, and large corporate companies who long to make a difference. By building awareness, we hope to better the lives of children and give them a sense of normalcy in their sometimes turbulent world.
Share with us the number of children you have helped to-date and explain how you have helped.
Our Sweet Case program alone has reached over 41,200 children across the nation, providing them with an essential care packages in the form of a duffle bags, stuffed animals, blankets, coloring books, and crayons.
We've managed to take 840 foster youth to Disneyland and reunite them with their siblings.
We've provided 2,838 bicycles to children in foster care through our Build-A-Bike program.
Nine college students this year are the recipients of scholarships through our Family Fellowship program.
What has been your most successful event, project or program to-date?
Our most successful program is our Sweet Cases program. Our Sweet Cases are brand new duffel bags that get decorated and stuffed with a brand new blanket, teddy bear, hygiene kit, coloring book and box of crayons. Typically, when children enter the foster care system, they receive two trash bags to carry the belongings they hold dear to them as they move from home to home. We have grown tremendously in the distribution of Sweet Cases across the United States -- growing from approximately 1,700 in 2013 to 4,200 in 2014 to 30,000 in 2015. Our goal for 2016 is to get these into the hands of over 37,000 children nationwide.
Where does most of your funding come from?
The funding in which we operate from comes mainly from corporate donors and grants.
What is the most detrimental myth about foster children, in your opinion?
In my opinion, the most detrimental myth about foster children would be that they're damaged goods or bad kids. These children are often in foster care because of circumstances that they have no control over or could not have avoided. These children are just like any other children.
Share a success story.
One of the most memorable stories is one that came from our annual Disney Day trip. Every year we take over 200 foster youth to Disneyland for the first time, focusing on reuniting them with their siblings, many of whome they've been separated from when placed into the foster care system. We had a husband and wife who graciously volunteered to help on that day. Through the experiences provided, they felt the calling to foster to adopt. They now have two children who have found their forever home.
Finish this statement, "We would consider our organization to be most successful if..."
"If we are able to eliminate the negative stereotypes often associated with foster youth, raise awareness to the issue within the foster care system, make it a law that no child should move from home to home using a trash bag and provide a means of educational opportunity to these children who so often lack the resources and support needed."
No doubt, together we Rise has a very good shot at achieving these goals, especially as they've waged their war using the very team most likely to ensure permanent change in the foster care system and the world -- kids. With this in mind, I, once again, urge all parents to get involved -- possibly use this opportunity to bond with your own children as you bolster the efforts of together we Rise, together. It's an opportunity many foster kids can only dream of -- one further clarified by the Proverb "but be the grace of God go I," right?
Many thanks to the team at together we Rise for making this interview possible