According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, there are nearly 5,000 children in foster care across the commonwealth. These children, on average, spend 21 months in foster care. Some return to their birth families or are adopted, but up to 18% will age out of the system at age 18 without ever having had a permanent home.
As the parent of a former foster child, Joy Rios had a deeper understanding of the needs of these children and felt called to help them in any way she could. She started giving back to the community by participating in the annual Holiday Project, hosted by the Virginia Beach Department of Human Services. The goal of the event was to grant Christmas wishes to children in foster care, but she realized that many of these wishes were basic needs that weren’t being met, such as a mattress or new clothes, rather than toys or gadgets. Rios realized that the children needed their wishes granted year-round, not just during the holiday season, so in 2014, she founded Connect With a Wish to further meet the needs of the foster care community in Virginia Beach.
While CWW does provide the essentials that the children need, the organization also funds opportunities to enrich their lives. While many children are able to attend dance lessons or martial arts classes, children who are in foster care rarely get those opportunities. To fill the gap, CWW covers the cost of activities like these.
As time went on, Rios realized that the children needed much more than just the wish program. Today, CWW has several programs and annual events that it leads, including:
Virginia has one of the highest rates of foster kids aging out of the system without finding a permanent home, leaving them lacking support as they navigate adulthood. About 20% become homeless immediately upon aging out, and another 40% become homeless within two years. CWW began the Supporting Success to combat it.
The program provides those aging out of the system with things for their future homes, such as towels, sheets and kitchenware. While CWW purchases some items through fundraising, it also asks for donations, especially if the child needs something more expensive like furniture.
“Sometimes, if a kid needs a dresser or something, we’ll just post about it on our Instagram page, and the community is really great about helping us out,” said Colleen Luksik, vice president of Connect With a Wish.
Connect with Careers
CWW’s newest program, Connect with Careers, also targets the young adults who are aging out of the system by guiding them through the basics of becoming an adult, such as earning their driver’s license, learning how to make a résumé and finding job training or mentorships.
“A lot of these kids, when they first age out of foster care, don’t have a lot of skills, so they’ll go get a job in retail or a fast-food restaurant,” Luksik said. “But they don’t know that these jobs often don’t pay enough to cover all their expenses and usually don’t offer insurance.”
Connect with Careers attempts to solve this problem by working with local resources to identify job training programs, apprenticeships and certifications.
CWW also assists those who want to pursue higher education. According to Luksik, only 2% of foster kids go on to college, but for those who do, CWW supplements some of the financial aspects of the process, such as paying application fees or helping to provide dorm furniture. CWW also works with local politicians to advocate for foster kids who’d like to go to college.
“Foster kids in Virginia have already had the ability to attend community college, tuition-free,” Luksik said. “But without scholarships, it’s next to impossible for a lot of them to attend a four-year school. So back in 2018, we worked with then delegate Jason Miyares to pass House Bill 2350, which ensures that children in foster care may get free tuition to Virginia state schools.”
The passage of this law creates more opportunities for former foster kids, but it’s certainly not the end of the road.
“The free tuition is great, but there are still other costs that make it difficult for foster kids to go to college,” Luksik said. “There’s the cost of room and board, and the schools usually expect students to leave the dorms during Christmas break or in the summer, but they don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Currently, CWW is working with Del. Anne Ferrell Tata to expand HB2350 by offering waivers for room and board and creating an addendum to allow students to remain on campus during breaks.
“For a lot of foster children, their birthdays just come and go,” Luksik said. “So we started the ‘Birthday Brigade,’ where we create birthday bags for each of the foster kids in Virginia Beach.”
These birthday bags include cake mix, a disposable cake pan, party cups, plates, napkins, a card and a small gift.
“Putting together these birthday bags is an easy way for people in the community to get involved with CWW,” Luksik said. “Even kids can help to collect items for them.”
Handle with Care
Similar to the Birthday Brigade, the Handle with Care program involves putting together duffel bags with essentials for foster kids to keep with them.
“Sometimes a caseworker might get a call in the middle of the night and need to take a child to a new placement, and they often have to put what few things the child is bringing with them into a trash bag,” Luksik said. “When this happens, it can be really sudden, and the foster family might not be completely ready for the child’s arrival.”
The duffel bags are filled with things like pajamas, a night light, a book, toiletries and a stuffed animal. CWW stores a variety of these bags, labeled by age and gender, at the Virginia Beach Department of Human Services, where they’re ready to go for caseworkers at any time.
“It can be really scary for these kids when they first go to a placement, because they’re usually coming out of a stressful or traumatic situation,” Luksik said. “These bags make it a little better, so they can sleep in a nice, clean pair of pajamas and have those comfort items with them.”
At the CWW office, foster children can visit the clothes closet and take some new items home with them. The closet accepts donations of new or gently used clothes and is one of the most impactful programs that CWW has, according to Luksik.
“The clothes closet is actually really important for our kids,” she said. “Our goal is for each child to have a different set of clothes for every day of the week. Kids at school will sometimes make fun of them if they have to wear the same outfit every day, so we want to prevent our kids from having to go through that.”
CWW has two youth groups for kids ages 14 and older, one for boys and one for girls, that meet once a month.
“Sometimes the kids will do an educational activity, where they’ll learn about self-care or wellness, and other times they’ll get to go to a sports game or just do something fun,” Luksik said.
At least once a year, both groups come together to listen to a guest speaker – always an adult who was formerly in foster care – talk about their experiences growing up and what they’ve done since leaving the system.
“This past year was really special; we had former NFL player Gaelin Elmore come and talk to the kids,” Luksik said. “He’s a really great role model, and it meant a lot to the kids to hear from someone who has been through what they’re going through now. He just had a really positive message.”
One of Luksik’s favorite events hosted by CWW is its annual prom. All girls ages 14 and older, regardless of whether they’re actually attending their school’s prom, are invited to a day of pampering. CWW invites professional hairstylists, makeup artists and nail technicians to give the girls makeovers and make them feel glamorous. Each girl gets her choice of one of hundreds of gowns and a pair of matching shoes, which they keep after the event.
If the girls are going to prom, CWW will give them a gift card to attend dinner beforehand, and while they won’t be treated to makeovers, the boys will have the cost of their suit rentals covered.
“I remember one year, there was a girl who came to the prom event, but she didn’t seem all that excited to be there,” Luksik said. “She was wearing a sweater with her hood up and her head down – it seemed like someone else signed her up for this.
“But she still participated, and by the end, she was just in shock. She said, ‘I can’t believe I look beautiful.’ I think that’s such a testament to what this program means to these girls. It makes them feel like they’re worth it, that they deserve to have a special day. It’s a physical transformation, but also a mental one.”
Every year, CWW invites all foster children in the community to attend a big Christmas party, with a DJ, food, dancing, face painting and games. Santa also brings a gift for every single child. During COVID, the event was set up in an outdoor, walk-through style, where the kids could still receive their gifts and take home hot cocoa and cookies. If it’s safe to do so, CWW is hoping to hold a traditional Santapalooza this year.
With the vast number of programs and activities that CWW runs, there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer with the organization.
“Some of the easiest ways to get involved are collecting items for the Birthday Brigade or Handle With Care bags,” Luksik said. “That can be done on an individual level, but we’ve had people do neighborhood drives to collect items as well.
“We also do have a pretty big social media following, and we use our channels to advertise what we need and people can volunteer to donate those items. If people aren’t sure what else we might need, we do have an Amazon wishlist. You can also use AmazonSmile, at no cost to you, and Amazon will donate a portion of any purchases you make to Connect with a Wish.
“If you’re looking for an in-person opportunity, we’re always looking for office volunteers. We need people to put the bags together for our different programs, organize our clothes closet and help us run our events. There are opportunities that fit everyone’s schedule.”
The Big Picture
Besides continuing its current programs, CWW has a larger goal that it believes will make a huge difference: establishing a housing project for kids who have aged out of foster care.
“Right now, we’re looking to secure about an acre of land or an existing building where we can house eight to ten kids who’ve aged out of foster care,” Luksik said. “This would serve as transitional housing where they can work with our team to get on their feet.
“The kids who have just aged out of the system are our most critical population. Probably half of our kids who age out will need some kind of support in order to be successful. You have to consider that these kids have all come from situations where things have not gone smoothly, or else they wouldn’t be in foster care in the first place. Some of them may need mental health services to cope with their traumas.”
“There’s also the issue that real estate in Virginia Beach is very expensive, and many of these kids may be forced to leave the area to find safe and affordable housing. Unfortunately, this means that they’ll be leaving behind all of the connections that they made here.”
“Our kids are so resilient and resourceful, but we want to remain a source of support for them. Parents are usually the main advocates for their kids, but foster kids don’t have advocates in the same way. People just don’t know what these kids need, they don’t always know how to help, so that’s the role that Connect With a Wish is trying to fill.”