I’ll never forget the first Christmas I spent in a residential facility. I woke up on Christmas morning, halfway hoping someone from my family would rescue me, even for the day, but knowing deep down that would never happen. The most I could have hoped for, besides a phone call or card from a relative, was for the residential staff to try to make Christmas the best it could be given the circumstances.
I remember starting the day thinking the food was unusually delicious while trying to ignore the fact I was in an institution and not nestled in a secure home. After breakfast, all the other kids and I were instructed to sit around a professionally decorated tree in the general living area. Seeing all those gifts under the tree temporarily suspended the downward spiral of depression that was beginning to suffocate me. For a moment, I had something to look forward to, perhaps a gift that could either elevate my happiness or improve the quality of my life.
Sitting there, crossed legged, in a donated sweat suit, I worked myself up to the possibility of a distraction from what my life was then. Staring at all those presents, none with my name on it, I wondered if any of the gifts might be a book that would speak to me or a journal and pen to write my thoughts. I began to fantasize if there was a pretty sweater, a gift card to a department store that would allow me to buy new clothes or music to help me escape my surroundings. For a moment there, before staff doled out the donated gifts, I was actually happy and excited for what would come next.
It didn’t take me long to see that the staff cleverly arranged the seating chart to the gifts by age groups. I was one of four teenagers, and since there were almost no donations for teenagers, we ended up sitting there watching all the little kids gleefully rip through dozens of colorful, glossy wrapping paper, ribbons and bows to get to their gifts.
While we were glad the little ones found a way to enjoy this most difficult day, that moment reminded all of us how life in foster care worked. Most parents want young kids, not teens. Most people donated gifts for small children, not teens. Christmas morning was a symbol of what we teens go through all year long.
While that Christmas in a residential facility was no doubt the most soul-dispiriting one I spent in foster care, what would have made a tremendous difference was a heartfelt card from someone who knew me, whether it was from a social worker, lawyer, ILSP worker or someone else who was paid to care about my well-being.
As for donations from strangers, it would have meant the world if someone called ahead of time to get an idea of the teens in the facility and donate items they either give their own teens or something that can help them for the future. I know for a fact that if I had physical evidence that there were people “out there” who cared about me, I wouldn’t have spent the rest of my Christmas day crying in bed, hating my life and wishing I was never born.
If you’re interested in making a donation to a teen in foster care, you can Google foster care group homes and residential facilities in your area and call to find out how to donate. The gift doesn’t have to be much but I can guarantee that your little something will mean everything to foster teenagers who often feel forgotten.