Washingtonians have a chance to help brighten the holidays this year for the more than 8,000 children and teens in the state’s foster care system.
“This year has been challenging in so many ways, and youth in foster care have shouldered some of the heaviest burdens,” said Spencer Sheridan, senior event coordinator for Treehouse, a Seattle-based nonprofit that aims to provide a better childhood and future for foster care youth throughout Washington state. “A meaningful holiday gift or warm clothes can make all the difference in a child’s confidence and determination to persevere,” Sheridan said.
In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Treehouse’s annual “Holiday Magic” program has gone virtual this year with online donation drives and an easy-to-navigate online holiday wish list filled with clothes, toys, technology and other gifts specially curated for foster youth.
Janice D’Aloia, of Washougal, said her adopted children, Ruthie and Kyle, were Holiday Magic gift recipients when they were still in the foster care system.
“They are nice gifts,” D’Aloia said, recalling the wireless headphones, science kits, art supplies, Barbies and LEGOs her children received in the four years before she and her husband, Mike, a bus driver for the Washougal School District, formalized the adoption this year. “My kids got wireless headphones last year and they’re awesome for school — they were nicer than the ones that we’d bought them.”
Although her family has been fortunate to have an income during the COVID-19 pandemic, D’Aloia said many local foster families are working on tight budgets and looking forward to their foster children receiving a special gift through the Treehouse program this holiday season.
“This area has a pretty broad spread of economic diversity but there are families (that are finding it) really difficult to afford gifts, especially now, with so many people out of work,” D’Aloia said. “It might make a real difference this year.”
Heidi Hiatt, Treehouse’s education program services manager for the Southwest Washington area, said 2020 has been an especially tough year for many children and teens in foster care, especially those who were already struggling with the trauma of being removed from their homes and possibly separated from their biological siblings.
“The pandemic has put even more stress on families,” Hiatt said. “Our education specialists are seeing that some students are thriving with remote learning … but that most of the youth are really struggling with engagement in school.”
On top of that, Hiatt said, Treehouse staff have been trying to check in with foster youth of color who have been deeply impacted by the highly visible deaths of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement officers this year, including George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; and Kevin Peterson Jr. in Vancouver.
“Young people are seeing this and they’re having strong feelings about what’s happening,” Hiatt said. “Our staff was checking in with our students of color, some who may be living in a foster home (where the parents) don’t look like them.”
For Camas-Washougal residents who would like to help support the more than 8,000 children and teens in foster care this holiday season, Treehouse has two options available: hosting a donation drive through treehouseforkids.org and shopping on the nonprofit’s online gift registry at treehouseforkids.org/wishlist.
“The support we’ve received statewide from the different communities has been really amazing,” Hiatt said. “And our donors locally have been great. I did my own personal holiday donation page with Treehouse and thought I might be able to raise $1,000 through my own network — but raised over $3,500.”
And with foster children spread across the state, Hiatt said it really does take the entire Washington village to help these vulnerable youth thrive this year and into the future.
“For so many of our families, there is just not a lot of hope out there and things can seem overwhelming,” Hiatt said. ” It does take a community to support these children and help them be successful.”
The D’Aloia family leaned on Treehouse’s array of supportive programs to help them navigate the world of foster parenting.
“I’d been a professional my whole life and traveled for work and didn’t have children of my own,” D’Aloia said. “So I had to learn how to be a parent.”
Six years ago, Janice and Mike D’Aloia had plans to retire and travel. Then, Mike discovered that one of the younger students on his bus route, then 5-year-old Ruthie, had gone into foster care.
“It didn’t surprise me when he came home and said, ‘Ruthie needs a new home,'” D’Aloia said of her husband, who had grown sons and grandchildren older than Ruthie at this point in his life.
“We were getting close to dialing it back,” D’Aloia said. “We both had technology careers … and we had a retirement home in another state that we were going to move into.”
Instead, the couple found themselves immersed in parenting two young children, after taking in Ruthie and her younger brother, Kyle.
D’Aloia changed her career completely, becoming a health coach and taking a position managing a nonprofit software user group so she could work from home more often.
“It was a big learning curve around everything,” D’Aloia said. “But we figured it out.”
Treehouse helped the family work with the Washougal School District to get Ruthie, 11, an individualized education plan (IEP) that worked for her special needs and the couple’s church helped connect them with other local foster families.
“Treehouse was extremely important for us. I wouldn’t have had any idea what to do without Heidi helping us navigate all of the educational challenges,” D’Aloia said.
Navigating the world of remote learning has provided new challenges this year, D’Aloia said.
Because of her special needs, Ruthie has been able to have part-time, in-person learning.
“It’s wonderful to have her back at school,” D’Aloia said. “She goes back three days a week, for about four hours. And she still does Zoom with her own class.”
Kyle, 10, has had a tougher time during the pandemic.
“He’s doing school at home, but he misses his friends and gets frustrated with the technology,” D’Aloia said, adding that the internet service in her family’s Washougal neighborhood often loses connection. “It’s tough. I’ve talked to other parents and parents of some of Kyle’s friends, and they’re all unhappy. There have been a lot of meltdowns. The pandemic has been hard on the kids.”
The holidays, especially during the pandemic, also can be rough on foster children, even those who have found good homes.
“It’s hard during the holidays,” D’Aloia said. “They miss their family –my kids have seven other siblings — so we always did sibling visits, but we can’t really do that now and they’re asking why they can’t see their brothers and sisters. No matter how bad a child’s life was, they usually miss their parents and their family. They’re missing their family. Even though you might give them as much love as you’ve got, it doesn’t make up for that hole that’s there. That is a hole that will always be there and they are learning to live with it.”
One bright spot in 2020 for the D’Aloia family came in April, when Ruthie and Kyle became Janice and Mike’s adopted children.
“It’s made a big difference to our family that we adopted,” D’Aloia said. “They call us mom and dad now.”
To learn more about Treehouse and its Holiday Magic program, visit treehouseforkids.org.