Friends of Foster Children Marks 40-Year Legacy

Each November, a trio of trees appears in Arcadia’s Santa Anita Mall the day after Thanksgiving. Unlike other symbols of the impending holiday season, however, these trees aren’t adorned with lights, bells or baubles, but with paper tags, and on each of these tags, three wishes are written. By Christmas Day, those wishes materialize into gifts for foster children living at 10 residential facilities across San Gabriel Valley. Such is the magic of the Sugar Plum Trees, an annual project that has been organized by Friends of Foster Children since 1976.
For 40 years, the Pasadena nonprofit has been dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for abused, abandoned and neglected foster children in the San Gabriel Valley. During that time, FOFC has provided gifts for 90,405 foster children, given more than $1 million in scholarships and emancipation awards to area foster youth, and granted $1 million in assistance to local foster homes and care facilities. Remarkably, the organization has done this with no office headquarters and no paid staff, just an army of 50 hard-working volunteers driven by compassion and a commitment to helping children.
“Since we are an all-volunteer organization, less than 6% of our budget goes to operating expenses,” said FOFC President Richard Cota. “It all gets put back into taking care of kids. Even though we’re small, we get a lot done.”
FOFC operates as a network of committees, each focused on improving a different aspect of foster children’s lives. While the Sugar Plum Tree committee provides gifts for Christmas, the Special Friends committee aims to brighten children’s foster experience year-round, particularly during holidays and events associated with family gatherings. For children living in foster care, something as simple as candy on Halloween and Easter or DVDs and popcorn on Thanksgiving can bring a sense of normalcy to an existence that is often isolated and lonely. For a foster child starting school, a backpack filled with school supplies is one less obstacle on the road to higher education. For a child entering foster care with nothing, a welcome kit with a pillowcase and toiletries can make a remarkable difference.
“A lot of times, when you walk into a facility, what you’re wearing is everything you’ve got,” said Cota. “You’re scared, you’re confused, you don’t know anybody there, but now at least you’ve got something. It’s a helpful start.”
Then there’s the Foster Caring committee, which acts as something of a safety net for covering items that may not be in a residential facility’s budget the moment they are needed: A pair of prescription glasses, for example, or a child’s braces. FOFC has also funded the purchase of laptops, paid for SAT prep classes and clothing for job interviews and sponsored trips to destinations ranging from Knott’s Berry Farm to Washington, D.C. The experiences funded by the program are often ones that many of us take for granted, such as going out for dinner or attending prom.
“So many of the things that the Foster Caring group does really just help [foster children] learn what a normal life is and how to become part of society,” said Cota. “It’s so hard for these youth to be part of society, because their lives are so dramatically different.”
“It doesn’t seem fair that some children have so much and some don’t have anything or anybody in their lives,” added Peggy Ulbrich, who has been a member of FOFC since its inception. “You can’t make it equal for them, but you can try to help them.”
Through its Scholarship/Emancipation program, FOFC continues to help foster youth after they have emancipated or aged out of the system, providing financial assistance and guidance to those wishing to further their education and live independently. When the program started in 1977, FOFC gave five scholarships annually at $100 apiece. Now, it gives 35 scholarships, starting at $500 for community colleges and $1,000 for four-year colleges. With each year that a student stays in school, the amount is raised.
“We don’t ask that much of them,” said Ulbrich. “We’ll stick with you as long as you’re going to school. If we have a history with you, you’re in.”
While the scholarship itself may not seem like a lot in the face of astronomical tuition fees, there’s more value to the program than the money. Upon being accepted into the scholarship program, each student is assigned a mentor: an FOFC volunteer dedicated to monitoring progress, providing motivation and moral support and helping students seek additional resources on the road to independence.
For former foster youth, many of whom have no familial figures or support, FOFC mentors become not only witnesses, but participants in their success; someone with whom to share each triumph, from their first college transcript to their acceptance into graduate school. For FOFC volunteers, who for privacy reasons are not able to directly interact with children in residential care, scholarship students bring a personal connection to the youth that they serve, and the bond extends well beyond college.
“I’m still in touch with some of my students,” said Ulbrich, who has mentored scholarship youth for much of the past four decades. “I’ve been to graduations, to weddings and to baby showers, and it’s really nice to have that one on one and see that some of them are going to make it. I wouldn’t have stayed around for 40 years if I hadn’t found it really rewarding.”
Aside from annual site tours, FOFC members may rarely meet the children whose lives they touch, but through thank you letters and feedback from facility staffers, they know they are making a positive difference. The foster children, too, may never see the faces behind the gifts they receive each Christmas, or shake the hands the people who lovingly assembled their care packages, but through those actions, they know that someone out there cares and is looking after them.
“The members of Friends of Foster Children are angels living in the community,” said Laura Kelso, director of community resources at Hillsides, which, fittingly enough, honored FOFC with its Community Angel Award last year. “They have decided to pour all their efforts into helping these kids find security, contentment and happiness. Their hearts are loving and generous to the core.”
FOFC may be small, but it is certainly mighty, and as the organization prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary, it hopes to draw new volunteers to its dedicated army of angels. In San Gabriel Valley, which has the highest concentration of foster children in Los Angeles County, FOFC’s work is far from over.
“It doesn’t go away — there are always more foster children,” said Ulbrich.
“They need help, and that’s what we can do,” added Cota. “We get together, we get things done and we change lives.”
For more information about Friends of Foster Children, visit fofcsangabrielvalley.com or call (626) 445-4542.

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