Malheur community shows its heart for foster kids

The childhood account kept rattling around in my head.

An Ontario woman recounted how, as a young girl, she was removed from her parents by the state and put into foster care.

She described being told to go to her bedroom to gather her things. Then, she was told she could take very little.

She arrived at the homes of strangers without even a toothbrush.

Sadly, that happens too often in Malheur County. We have far too many parents neglecting or abusing their children, compelling the state to step in. And because state child protection workers have to act fast, there usually isn’t time for packing.

I heard of these accounts as I reported on the foster care system locally. At every turn, the system is strained. Too many kids. Too few caseworkers. Not enough foster parents. And not enough volunteers to plug important gaps elsewhere in the system.

And then I read the essay by Anna, a young Ontario girl who herself had been in foster care. She wrote of her dream of seeing that every child removed from parents could have items to call their own. She wrote of her ambition to raise money to buy backpacks and fill them with a toothbrush, books, a blanket, a stuffed animal, and other items.

We ran her essay as part of our series decided, with the consent of her and CASA of Eastern Oregon, to help with the backpack project.

The Malheur Enterprise put out the call. We sought 25 people to each donate $30 – the cost of a backpack and goods, according to CASA.

Last week, we ended the project with remarkable success – funding for 49 backpacks. That’s 49 children in Malheur County who will go to foster homes with items they will always call their own. They may not understand how their community cares for them, but they also won’t have to feel abandoned.

The donations came from all over the county. We took in checks. People walked into the office with $30 in cash, eager to help. Toward the end of the drive, we alerted the community we were just five donations away from mission accomplished. Soon, Origins Faith Community of Ontario showed up with the money to buy those last five backpacks.

Yet still the donations came in.

Few were as touching as the $60 that came from the Treasure Valley Youth Development Academy, what was once the Treasure Valley Boxing Club. The kids in the program decided they wanted to help out less fortunate kids, and they did it the hard way. They collected cans and bottles. A dime at a time, they built their holdings. They planned to raise money for one. They kept going, though. They funded two backpacks. That’s a lot of pop cans.

And in a parallel effort, Corina Perez and the crew at Giggles & Grace in Ontario collected donations to buy another 20 backpacks.

The need for these backpacks will always be there. There are other needs in the system as well. The state is desperately short of foster parents. That’s a challenging, life changing role to take on, but we need more community heroes to raise their hands.

Volunteers are in short supply for CASA, which trains people to serve as one-on-one advocates for children placed in foster care. Right now, far too many kids have no one at their side in this role as they face a bewildering new life. And the local Citizens Review Board, which keeps a sharp eye on how government is treating foster kids, needs more people.

At the Enterprise, we’re going to continue pushing the state, nonprofits, lawyers, judges and others to improve care for foster children. They already are facing great pressure at the state level. But these are Malheur County’s most vulnerable children. They need all of us to get behind them, to help them, to nurture them. They are the innocents paying a stiff price for the bad choices of parents.

Let me know if you’re moved to want to help, and I’ll do my best to connect you with the right people in the right places to make use of what you have to offer.

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Enterprise. Contact: [email protected].