Volunteering is a life-changing experience
Volunteering skills and experience can be a very fulfilling way to help children in foster care. Annually, there are more than 400,000 kids in foster care in the United States. As a critical service for providing youth with stability and support, a positive experience in foster care can make a major difference in a child's future. Volunteers are fundamental to the success of a child during their time in foster care as well as after they leave the system permanently.
Boys & Girls Aid has an amazing group of volunteers who help us in a number of different ways. They come from all different careers and stages of life with the common connection that they are here to support children. From preparing meals to leading classes with youth, our volunteers enhance the services we are able to provide children in our care.
While we work with a lot of volunteers who are compelled to help from hearing stories or learning about Boys & Girls Aid, many of our volunteers have personal experience with the foster care system. For adults who spent time in foster care as children, they often feel an inner-calling to help youth who are in similar situations to where they once found themselves.
This is what connected us with Sheldon Lenford. As someone who spent time growing up in foster care, Sheldon said he wanted to be a resource who could related to the challenges many of these youth faced.
"I wanted to give back and enrich a child’s life by giving my time," he said, "It’s very important to have that person in your life who understands what you are going through."
Sheldon currently volunteers at our program created last fall to serve as a safe landing place for children entering foster care who are out of options.
“I chose this role because I wanted to work directly with the youth," he said. "I wanted to learn about their everyday lives to get a better understanding of them.”
Dani Jo has volunteered with Boys & Girls Aid since December 2016. She teaches a hip hop course to girls in our programs between 12-18 years old. For her, the time she spends with them is about teaching ways to use dance as a way to deal with the day to day challenges of life and to find a work life balance.
“I have been teaching for about eight years, dance allows me to lose and find myself at the same time, it's my escape. That's what I hope to do in my class.” Dani said, "One hour to escape all the stressors these girls unfortunately have to deal with every day."
As a volunteer, Dani Jo has found her role expanding beyond being a teacher. She says she has become a mentor and friend to many of the girls.
“I love the girls. They are smart and fun, and have gotten to the point that they come to me and hug me and are happy to see me. That is the most rewarding feeling," she said. "Volunteering is an amazing thing and you'll feel rewarded but also you have to be open to their meltdowns, be understanding and patient and help them redirect that energy."
Like many volunteers, Dani Jo has discovered the career skills she has learned over a lifetime are very valuable to the youth.
Sheldon said what stands out to him is the time he gets to spend with the kids. He said it is pure fun, but also time where he gets to teach the youth important life lessons.
“The greatest achievement is making a child smile. You can’t ask for more than that.” Sheldon said. “I spent a few years in the foster system when my mother was battling a drug addiction. I remember the many people who took care of me during this times. A lot of those relationships have shaped the way for the person that I have become today. I want to be that example for the kids I work with."
There are many different volunteer roles at Boys & Girls Aid. Joan Steinbach volunteers by preparing meals for girls in foster care as well as youth who were at-risk of becoming homeless.
"I typically prepare part of a dinner at my house and then bring this to the program. Then, we complete the preparation together," she said. "I believe sitting down together for meal time is particularly centering and community-building. "
Joan remembers one dinner where one of the girls in the program had recently arrived at the program. She said the girl was disconnected and had a blanket around her. By the end of the dinner, she said the girl had opened up. She was animated and talking to everyone as if they were old friends.
Joan, who was adopted and said she was given support and structure through her family, wanted to offer that to the youth at Boys & Girls Aid. She said she had been a board member with another nonprofit, but did not feel like she had the direct experience of working with the population the nonprofit was serving. She likes her experience with Boys & Girls Aid and feeling like she is making a difference.
Brandi is a volunteer who's earliest memories were in foster homes. She and her siblings were eventually adopted when Brandi was 7. Today she works with families and youth and is also going to school for a degree with a social justice focus. One of her advisers at school recommend she look into volunteering with Boys & Girls Aid.
"My experiences and passions have guided me down a path towards social justice and the mission of Boys & Girls Aid is something I resonate with," she said. "I have a very busy life between school and working, but volunteering is something I make sure to always find time to do. I am thankful for the opportunities Boys & Girls Aid has given me to get involved, and I encourage others to do the same."
Diane Goforth volunteers at our girl's program as the gardener. She said learned about Boys & Girls Aid when someone from the organization stopped by her workplace to give a presentation on foster parenting. While she wasn't at a place where she could be a foster parent, she really liked what was said during the presentation. She is going on her third year.
"I thought it would be fun to play in the dirt with the girls. I of course did not realize playing in the dirt was not everyone's cup of tea and could not figure out why I did not have the rousing response I expected. Silly me, now the herb garden is three years old and is thriving," she said. "In the fall, winter and spring I help prepare dinner each night and I teach kitchen safety as well as my tricks, for instance; cutting onions without crying, on Thursday evenings."
Canning some of the garden's produce this fall is a class Diane is looking forward to teaching the girls. Diane remembers two years ago a young girl could not believe that when we put the herbs in the ground they would turn into anything. The other day she was having fun cutting some sage for dinner with a touch of rosemary.
Diane's said three years in she continues to have enthusiasm around volunteering.
"It is the best date I have planned all week," she said. "I look forward to my time with the girls, even when it is not always a good day."
Alyssa Richardson works with Inspire, a healthcare organization based in Portland.
Working with Inspire Wellness, she helped give free haircuts to the kids in all of our programs. volunteers at our Transitional Living Program which supports youth with housing and financial assistance. Working with Inspire Wellness, Alyssa provided free makeovers that included haircuts and beauty tips.
"Spending the day with women and children at the Transitional Living Program, pampering them and listening to their stories - we are able to share our hearts, things we have overcome and encourage them during their journey," she said.
To learn more about volunteering with Boys & Girls Aid, visit our volunteer section.