If you aren’t able to be a foster parent, but still want to help foster children, there are a lot of ways you can help.
Do you know a family that is fostering? Have they recently taken in a new child or sibling group? Ask them if they need anything! Find out the clothing size of the child(ren). Donate some clothing, or even a gift card to help offset shopping expenses.
Sometimes, kids come into foster care with none of their personal items. Sometimes, they come with a garbage bag filled with things that were grabbed as they were quickly packed up to leave to an uncertain place with people they didn’t know. How would you feel having your items tossed in a trash bag? It doesn’t seem like a healthy visual, does it?
Providing duffel bags, suitcases, and backpacks to your local Department of Social Services for these children to use for their personal items is a huge help. It may seem small, but the message kids get when trash bags are used for their items is that their stuff is garbage. If they can place their personal things in a canvas bag or suitcase instead, it will let them know their items will hold value where there are going and not be discarded.
Other donations that are helpful are basic hygiene products like toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, combs, hair products, soap, and deodorant. These are all things often needed when children enter foster care. Putting together small bins for foster families to keep on hand is a wonderful way to help. As a foster parent, this was something I was given and appreciated so much. To have a small container filled with extras on hand all the time was important. I never had to tell a child, “I am sorry, I don’t have a toothbrush for you tonight, but we will be sure to buy one tomorrow.” I didn’t have to remind them they were an unexpected addition, and we too needed to adjust to having them in our house, and we were not prepared for the call that brought them to us. Instead, it is great to be able to hand them that new toothbrush without it feeling like it is an inconvenience or making them feel unwelcomed. It is a simple gesture, but the message is welcoming when needed items are readily available.
Providing backpacks with basic school supplies inside can also be a big help. There may be local groups in your area that collect or put these types of bags together. Offering to volunteer time or making a donation to these organizations who then offer the backpacks and supplies to foster children who need them is a wonderful way to help children if you cannot foster yourself.
Do you know foster parents sometimes spend hours driving to visits, waiting during visits, and being away from home to facilitate the schedules of the kids? Helping them with things to do with waiting children is a wonderful gesture. A yearly membership to the local children’s museum, for the children to play while visitations take place and the family has time to wait. Keeping the others entertained is often hard. Having a place to go and let the kids play is a huge help.
I remember spending hours at local parks with my kids during a foster child’s scheduled visitation. It can be fun for a while, but kids get tired of the same parks, especially when they are there for hours at a time. It is also very challenging to find things to do when the weather isn’t cooperating. Winter weather or summer rain can make for a few very LONG hours to entertain waiting children.
Foster families could also use gift cards to local restaurants or fast food chains to get quick meals and snacks while out and about. Sometimes, foster children have visitations with their biological family several times a week. The schedule of these visits can result in a few nights per week being out and about during dinner time. Even if you are thrifty, eating several meals a week away from home can get expensive fast.
Maybe you know a family that has just taken in an infant? Does this family have all the things they need? Do you have anything you could donate that you no longer use like a baby swing, Pack N’ Play, bassinet, crib, or toddler bed? Do you have any clothing your kids grew out of that you can pass on? Can you drop off a package of diapers?
While it is true that most infants and toddlers qualify for state assistance simply by being in the foster care system, often these programs don’t cover all the costs. Many times, there is still a need for the foster family to purchase extra formula or baby food. The gift of a can of formula or a package of diapers to a family fostering a baby will not go unappreciated!
Helping with transportation may be another way to simplify a hectic foster family schedule. Does the family now have several school drop-offs? Is there a child placed with them that still attends an out of the area school? Are they struggling to meet the needs of the family and the hectic schedule? Offering to help drive kids to or from school could be a big help to the foster family and children. Or could you help with getting kids to various after-school activities, or even visitations?
Does the family have older school-aged children or teens placed with them? Do you have anything this age group may like? Maybe something like an old iPod that your family no longer uses or a tablet that you don’t use since you have upgraded? Are there other electronics that are no longer useful to you, but that a foster child would love to have? These are items that foster kids often don’t have but desperately want.
I remember a tween child placed with us just a few days before Christmas one year. We quickly called all the homes we would be visiting in the next few days to ask that they include a gift for our new placement. It was a bit challenging, as we had no idea what he liked, or what hobbies or interests he had. One of our families bought him a new iPod, which at the time was a very sought-after gift. He was so happy, and he felt so immediately a part of the family with such a thoughtful gift. Some of the other gifts weren’t such a hit (like the basketball he wouldn’t really use since he wasn’t into sports). Even so, the thought put into trying to include him did not go unnoticed, and the holiday wasn’t awful for him. He had gifts to open like everyone else even though he had been with us only a few days. He was missing his family, no doubt, but still felt included in ours.
Families with older child placements could probably also use activity gift cards. Going to the movies can become expensive quickly when you add a sibling group to your home. Could you give the gift of some movie theater gift cards or snack cards? Being able to do these types of things with older child placements can be wonderful for them and the family, but it sometimes becomes overwhelming to the budget.
Maybe they need some school supplies? When a family is signing up kids for school and supply shopping there may be some unexpected expenses. There may be added expenses for joining clubs or participating in sports or extracurricular activities. Would you be able to help a foster child be involved by helping with some of the supplies or extra requirements for school activities?
Does the family need to buy specialized equipment for a new placement who needs it? Is the foster child into sports and needs a special pair of shoes to be purchased? A helmet or other gear? Maybe the child is into music and really misses their guitar. Can you provide them with one? Sports and hobbies can often cost a large amount of money to replace gear or supplies, and sometimes foster families have a hard time doing so.
Many times, there is a bit of guilt felt by both children and families. A child may feel uncomfortable asking their foster family for specialty items, even though they may need them to continue or participate in their chosen sport or hobby. Also, a family may not feel they can provide some things needed and feel guilty if the child is unable to participate in something they love to do. If you can help in some of these moments with allowing foster kids to be able to keep doing things they find enjoyable without the financial burden on the foster family, I am sure they will all appreciate the help.
Do you know a family that could use something simple, like a casserole delivered on an extra busy day of the week? A simple casserole to take cooking off the to-do list on a busy day is such a blessing to a foster family. There are many days that are so busy, and the time to prepare a delicious meal just isn’t there. How fantastic it would be to not have to order that unhealthy pizza, and instead warm up a delicious casserole brought over by a friend?
Another wonderful way to help is the gift of your time! If you know you aren’t in a position to be able to foster, and you cannot donate items or gift cards, but still want to help, you can! Just being there to help with feeding or to allow a sleep-deprived foster mom a chance to relax a bit is very important. Giving a new foster family an hour or two of free childcare (if allowed within the guidelines of the foster agreement) is a wonderful gift.
And finally, one of the most helpful things you can do to help foster children and their families is just being there to listen. Listen without judgment or criticism. If a child opens up to you about some of their past, and you have some things you wish you could say that aren’t very constructive, keep them to yourself. Instead, try to simply be there and sympathize or support without judgment. Also, it is not helpful to try to get the children to discuss the reasons they are in foster care. If the child chooses to confide in you, listening and being supportive is helpful. However, asking for details they haven’t shared or prying into their personal situations is not helpful to the children. Be sure to share any information a foster child may give you with the foster parents. They may already have the information but are unable to share it with you due to confidentiality rules. If the child told you new information that is unknown, it is important for this to be documented and passed along to the appropriate people in the case.
If a foster mom really needs a coffee and a friend to listen to her vent about the new hectic schedule and the complicated situation she just took on, be there! Listen without judgment. Don’t ask her why she volunteers to take in challenging kids, or why she doesn’t say no. Offer support without judgment. It is important to realize you do not know all of the details, and foster parents cannot share all of the details with you. Please understand that sometimes foster families struggle to do the right things for foster placements, their children, and themselves. In this struggle, they often feel like they are failing someone at all times. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. A few minutes to share what they can, while feeling supported, is key to their survival! Helping foster parents cope also helps foster children. When parents feel less stress, they are more able to help the children find ways to handle their feelings too. It is difficult to help anyone manage their feelings if you are having a hard time with your own overwhelming thoughts. Just being a friend to the foster family, without judgment or criticism, is one of the best things you can do for foster children and families. Accepting the children and including them in things without hesitation is what foster families and children need in a friend.
Jennifer is a mother to 3 children (one biological, two adopted). She is also a mom to numerous pets. She enjoys volunteering in her children’s classroom, reading, and crafting in her spare time. She has been married for almost 15 years.