Somewhere near Corvallis, Oregon, a 6-year-old girl rides her bike, braids friendship bracelets and plays hide-and-seek in the yard. Come bedtime, she turns the pages of the storybook her mother reads to her.
But Mom is not the one who tucks her in at night. The two are video chatting, each with copies of the same book. It is a special time for them—apart, yet together.
It is a picture of foster care and the impact of silent helpers during a pandemic.
On top of coming from a difficult home life, many foster children are separated from their siblings. Such upheaval and uncertainty can be even more traumatic for them given the coronavirus, with its added economic, health and emotional stresses for foster families.
In February, My NeighbOR stepped in.
An initiative of Every Child Oregon— a statewide network that connects community members with children and families in crisis, and created as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—My NeighbOR provides local, rapid and sometimes emergency response to foster families’ basic, tangible needs. This means donors live in the same neighborhoods as the families, giving everything from groceries to bunk beds. So far, My NeighbOR has answered calls from more than 800 foster families and youth in every county in the state.
Since 2012, Portland foster children waiting in caseworkers’ offices have received welcome boxes with things such things as crayons and night lights. Word spread, and more communities around the state started their own Every Child program. The program also donates goods and services to Oregon Department of Human Services and foster children and families. This structure laid the groundwork for My NeighbOR.
The Contingent—a Portland-based nonprofit that works with communities for the common good—has partnered with the Oregon Department of Human Services to make My NeighbOR work.
“We need government systems and services, but it’s relationships that change people,” says Brooke Gray, executive director of mobilizing community with The Contingent. “It’s really powerful to see the neighbor down the street be the one in the middle to make the connection between someone’s needs and giving to them. That’s what neighborhoods are designed to do, and My NeighbOR helps to create that infrastructure.”
The program will continue at least through this summer.
Though no one knows what’s ahead, one thing is for sure: “We live in a really generous state,” Brooke says. “The true test is, will communities still be generous when they’re struggling through their own hardships? Yes. And that’s been very encouraging.”
The most popular requests are for groceries, toiletries, baby items and gift cards, as well as “flash boxes” filled with art supplies, puzzles and other fun activities. Big-ticket items—such as beds, bicycles and freezers—go through an internal grant-like review.
Community members have donated more than 100 laptops and tablets to My NeighbOR—the goal is 200—which has teamed up with Portland nonprofit Free Geek, which reconditions and sells used computers and other electronics.
The organization wipes the computers clean of their data and mails them directly to DHS-recommended foster children—from toddlers to teens—for telemedicine wellness checks and video visits with non-foster family. These computers help fill the gap from school-issued computers that generally can only be used for schoolwork.
Foster families and youth who need donations and those who want to give sign up on My NeighbOR’s secure website. When the program receives a list of needs in the community, volunteers contact those who want to donate.
More than 1,200 people want to give. Brooke says about 95% of needs are met.
People drop off their donations at one of 47 My NeighbOR public anchor sites, such as churches, nonprofit organizations and Court Appointed Special Advocates offices.
Salena Minkler, a grade school special educator in Bandon and a My NeighbOR anchor-site coordinator, says being on call and available is vital because so many needs are immediate.
“I don’t see myself being a foster parent because I’m already working with some of the neediest kids, many in foster care,” she says. “I’m excited that I can help through this organization wrapping around the communities that serve foster kids and families. The whole point is to make the foster care experience better for them.”
Three days a week, trained volunteers with My NeighbOR manage specific drop-off areas, which they keep sanitized. If donors or families cannot make it to the anchor sites, My NeighbOR calls on local drivers from Team Rubicon—an international nongovernment organization of volunteer military veterans and first responders who serve vulnerable populations impacted by disaster.
My NeighbOR follows up to make sure families received everything.
It was a My NeighbOR donor who gave a bike to the 6-year-old girl.
“She wanted one of her own that she could take home with her,” says her foster mother, who also received a car seat and gift cards for the girl, as well as the duplicate books she video-reads with her mother. “It’s amazing to see the outpouring from the community. She’s learning to trust that she and her mother are loved. And because things are given to her, she’s also learning that she can give things to others.”
Donors also benefit.
“They have a chance to help write her story and create her treasured memories of foster care,” the foster mother says.
For more about My NeighbOR and to volunteer, donate and/or receive donations, go to https://everychildoregon.org/myneighbor.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite magazine, spotlights Heroes Among Us, sharing the unique stories of volunteers and difference-makers in communities across the Northwest and West. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private, nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest.