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Volunteers can do so much for the growing numbers of Alaska's foster children

Rep. Les Gara
OPINION: Fosters kids need stability and care in their lives, and there are ways all of us can help. Pictured: A Best Buy worker loads 17 laptops bound for teens in foster care in December 2014. The laptops were bought with donations to the group Facing Foster Care in Alaska.Mike Mason / AK House

All children should have a loving home and the opportunity to succeed. That's unfortunately not the case for many Alaska foster youth. Today 40 percent end up homeless, or couch-surfing at someone else's home, at some point after leaving foster care. Seventeen percent end up in jail.

As we think about our holiday blessings, I'd like a generous community to know there are many things we can do to help, some easier, and some that take more time. Or maybe you know someone who can help if you can't.

I lost my father when I was six. His life, and the lives of every person at his office, were taken by a person who wielded ill will and a knife. As a result, my brother and I grew up in foster care. I now understand I was lucky to have relative stability, which is crucial to children whose lives have been uprooted.

Life for foster youth in Alaska is much tougher than it was for me. Many of the youth I know -- because of a vast shortage in adoptive and foster parents -- get bounced between five, 10 and sometimes more than 20 temporary foster homes as the state tries to find a long-term foster family to offer stability, love and care. I've met too many foster youth who simply have to clear too many hurdles, in school, at home, and in life, every single day. The number of Alaska foster youth has surged by over 50 percent in the past five years, and now tops 2,800.

These are reasons why I've worked with other Alaskans to start and promote volunteer efforts that allow all of us to help bring success to these youth. As a legislator I'll keep working for reforms so foster youth have an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed in life. But there is much we can do today, as volunteers.

Contrary to what many think, the highest goal is to get a child in foster care out of that system, and into a permanent home with loving parents. That saves the state money, and saves a child pain. On the road to that goal, we need good foster parents who will provide guidance and care.

There are smaller things we can do that make a big difference. They range from acting as a volunteer youth mentor to donating a laptop so an older child can succeed in school, carry family pictures and memories, and communicate with friends.

We've started a volunteer effort called FosterWear. Through that effort, great businesses in urban and rural Alaska offer quality new clothing to foster youth at discount. New, quality clothing means a lot to a child who has little else. Own or manage a business and want to help? Call Yuri at the Office of Children’s Services, 907-451-5075.

Want to donate a new or used laptop? Used ones should be no more than five years old, run fast and have a word processor. You can also donate to help purchase a laptop. We can get you in touch with the right person at Facing Foster Care in Alaska, which works with caseworkers to match computers with older youth, contact 907-269-0106; rep.les.gara@akleg.gov.

Want to be a mentor to an older foster child so they have a responsible adult in their life as they move into adulthood? Male mentors are especially needed right now. Just contact the Big Brothers Big Sisters SYNC Program atSharon.pruszko@bbbsak.org, 907-433-4691.

Want to open your loving home to a child who doesn't have one? We need good foster parents and parents who'll adopt a child out of foster care (the state covers the cost of adopting foster youth). Contact the Alaska Center for Resource Families at 907-279-1799.

Thanks to the current and former foster youth at Facing Foster Care in Alaska, including Director Amanda Metivier, for working with us to start the mentorship, laptop and FosterWear efforts. We're lucky to have youth who want to make life better for those who follow them.

And I'm fortunate to live in a generous community.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, has served in the state House of Representatives since 2003.

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