Local Treasures with Pia: Fosterful helps children through the most difficult day of their lives

Vancouver, Washington – Sarah Desjarlais remembers the day like it was yesterday. She was at a meeting at the child welfare office in Vancouver, and she noticed a young boy sitting in a conference room.

“He had his McDonald's Happy Meal and he had this other little box of goodies that had been supplied by a community group and he just kind of picked through them,” Desjarlais said, “and the two boxes of goodness that had been given to him were just not cutting it.”

She learned the boy had just been removed from his family, and he was waiting for social workers to organize his move to a foster family.

“I just thought he shouldn’t be sitting there alone waiting like that, and that’s how the idea for Fosterful came about,” Desjarlais said. “It occurred to me that he didn’t need more stuff thrown at him, he needed a person and that was the idea for Fosterful.”

Fosterful, which recently received some funding from the Avista Foundation, is a program staffed with volunteers who are educated to help children who’ve just experienced immense trauma. Volunteers come to the local welfare office when a child is taken into protective custody and they spend 100 percent of their time focused on the child, while everything else is sorted out.

The program started in 2013 and it’s now expanding to three new sites in North Idaho: Lewiston, St. Maries, and Kellogg.

“We have already successfully implemented the program in Coeur d’Alene,” Desjarlais said. “We will be needing lots of volunteers as we launch at the new sites.”

Volunteers are carefully screened and asked which age range they are most comfortable with. Some don’t care for changing diapers, and others may feel insecure around teens – it’s all about finding the best match possible. Volunteers also receive education on how to deal with trauma.

“Our volunteers meet with the kids on what’s possibly the darkest day of their lives,” Desjarlais said. “Our mission is to just soften that experience and allow for that trauma to start processing out from their bodies.”

Volunteers register in a secure online portal, where they set up a profile including which hours they are available, and if they speak any languages other than English (this is not a requirement). Staff at the child welfare office logs into the portal when they need help with a child who’s waiting for placement.

Treats, toys, and backpacks full of necessities are often already in the office, donated by other services groups like the local Rotary Club or Kiwanis, or provided by child welfare authorities.

“What we try to do is take this horrible thing that has happened to the children and turn it into a source of power for them down the road,” Desjarlais said.

At Avista, we recognize our unique position gives us the chance to contribute in an impactful way and make a real difference in people's lives. Since 2002, the Avista Foundation has made grants totaling over $13 million to organizations that support vulnerable and limited income populations, education, and economic and cultural vitality. For more information on grant applications and geographical areas covered, please visit avistafoundation.com.

If you are interested in volunteering for Fosterul, visit fosterful.org.

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