By Darlene Donloe
Reportedly, there are currently more than 35,000 children in foster care in Los Angeles County. Nationally, there are more than 400,000 children in foster care.
More than 23,000 children will age out of the U.S. foster care system every year and about 20% of them become instantly homeless.
Those statistics didn’t go unnoticed by Together We Rise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the way youth navigate through the foster care system in America.
Together We Rise is an indirect provider of service. It is not a foster agency and does not have resources to help make someone a foster or adoptive parent.
Instead, the group which has engaged 339,000 volunteers and impacted more than 600,000 children, is comprised of humanitarians, advocates, artists and visionaries who are committed to changing the world by believing that children in foster care deserve dignity, respect and support.
Every day, Together We Rise helps more than 250 kids in foster care nationwide.
Danny Mendoza, 33, launched the organization in 2008 after discovering his 9-year-old cousin was living in a car. He wanted to help but ran into obstacles because he was under the age of 21.
“In the process of helping, I learned the statistics of youth and foster care,” said Mendoza, who studied criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton. “I couldn’t just sit back, so I gathered my friends to help change the statistics and give kids the memories we had when we were growing up. We wanted to share those experiences through outings, providing new bikes, and more.”
Initially, Together We Rise started off working with kids in group homes, but then expanded its outreach.
Mendoza’s vision was to improve the lives of children in foster care, who often find themselves forgotten and neglected by the public.
To accomplish that, the organization started collaborating with individuals, companies and community partners to bring resources to foster youth and use service-learning activities to educate volunteers on issues surrounding the foster care system.
Together We Rise doesn’t work directly with foster children, instead, it works with thousands of volunteers, social workers, advocates and other partners to transform the way kids experience foster care.
Every day, nearly 1,200 children are removed from their homes and placed into the United States foster care system at no fault of their own. When those youth enter adulthood, 51% become unemployed and 25% experience homelessness. For those that attempt college, only 3% will make it to graduation.
Although the numbers are tragic, Mendoza believes there are ways his organization can work with others to make a difference.
Together We Rise works with a company, employees, and customers to change the way youth experience the foster care system. Studies show that employees and customers take pride in supporting companies that strive to make a difference.
When a company partners with Together We Rise, they give their employees and customers the tools to make an impact, leaving them fulfilled and empowered to change the world.
“The whole goal is how do you make their experience better,” said Mendoza, originally from Chino in the Inland Empire. “The kids come in with their belongings in a trash bag. We provide them with a duffle bag full of items like a teddy bear, a hygiene kit, a warm blanket, and fun activities.
“We personalize the bag,” he added. “That’s one way of making things better. Then we make sure they get a bike, if they want one, sponsor them to play sports, have birthday experiences. There is also the importance of family and reuniting them with siblings.”
Mendoza said Together We Rise programs are created to provide a way for people who cannot become foster parents to still have a meaningful and effective way to help children in foster care.
When faced with either becoming a foster parent or supporting a foster kid under the age of 12 by donating a $25 duffle bag, Mendoza said most people opt for the duffle bag.
“Our goal is to expand and create a pathway for foster parents to learn how to help,” he said. “We have a decent reach across the country. The question becomes, ‘How do you help without becoming a foster parent?’”
Mendoza stresses there is a “shortage of foster parents.”
“There is this misconception about foster kids that project them as a troubled youth,” Mendoza said. “That scares potential people from being foster parents. They need the right type of parent. Not all foster kids are available for adoption. About 100,000 out of almost 500,000 are available. Most kids in foster care are not bad kids. It’s not any fault of their own that they are there.”
Mendoza said, unfortunately, kids in foster care end up suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, just like war veterans.
“Foster parents also have to be informed,” Mendoza said. “They have to provide trauma-informed care.”
Mendoza, who has no children of his own, describes foster care as “a period of their life where they transition into someone else’s home until the family unit figures its life out.”
Most foster children, between the ages of 9-14, are in the system for two years.
“They enter the system two or three times again after that,” Mendoza said. “They usually come back. That’s the reality. They don’t necessarily go back to that same foster home. The goal is, how do you end that cycle.”
Mendoza describes it all as a process.
“They deserve love during this time period,” he said. “They should be treated the same way or better.”
Together We Rise doesn’t forget about foster kids once they “age out.”
“We provide them with the things they need — like laptops emergency money, scholarships — by providing $90,000 to go to college,” Mendoza said. “College kids don’t receive a duffle bag. They may get luggage. They are on a five-year program with things they need. We will ship what they need to agencies around the country.”
Together We Rise is a massive operation. The main programs are Sweet Cases (duffle bags), Building Bikes, Birthday Boxes, Framing Forever (free photographs for families adopting through foster care), Build A Board (providing skateboards), Superhero Boxes (a kit filled with a cape, mask, handcuffs, pillowcase, registration card and superhero pouch), reunification events, and Family Fellowship, which is the largest college scholarship available for youth aging out of the foster care program, and more.
People are encouraged to help through team-building activities, church service projects, school service projects, friends and family projects, and more.
Another program is Foster Love Fridays.
“Every Friday we select five foster families and give them a $1,000 grant to do with what they want,” Mendoza said. “We know it takes money to provide for the children. We will do this for the entire year. We have set aside $250,000 to get it done. This is just a way to thank them and support them.”
When he thinks about what he and his friends and team have accomplished, Mendoza feels a sense of pride.
“When you’re doing this type of work, it’s easy to feel you’re alone,” he said. “It’s nice to have like-minded people helping. It feels good being around good people doing good for people who could never repay them. I’m around great people who are doing great work.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.