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Holidays tree for foster teens has special meaning

Employees at Columbia Bank hold stars that contain gift suggestions for foster kids. Debbi Brooks-Givens, second from right, knows the life of a foster child. - Leslie Kelly
Employees at Columbia Bank hold stars that contain gift suggestions for foster kids. Debbi Brooks-Givens, second from right, knows the life of a foster child.
— image credit: Leslie Kelly

When it comes to the holiday giving tree at Columbia Bank in Silverdale that benefits foster kids, Debbi Brooks-Givens has a special reason for making sure it’s a success.

She knows what it feels like to be a foster child.

Brooks-Givens, who is a commercial banking officer with Columbia Bank, spent her teen years in foster care.

“I had it better than most,” she said. “Mine isn’t really a tragic story. But for some of my young years, I was pretty much on my own.”

When she was 10 years old, her mother died and her father remarried. She and her step-mother didn’t get along and she suffered from an abusive situation. She left home to stay with friends and eventually was brought before a judge.

“The judge didn’t believe me and I ended up in a cell,” she said. “It was a form of juvenile detention.”

She was able to work with a woman from the court there in Southern California who eventually placed her with a young couple who had a farm. She was one of two foster daughters and the couple had two children of their own. When she turned 16, her father signed papers allowing her to get her driver’s license and he had her piano delivered to her.

Brooks-Givens sold the piano and bought a car. She was able to drive to town to attend high school. She became a teacher’s assistant and learned to ride horses at the farm where she stayed. She even had a job at a fast food chicken restaurant and began saving money.

But when she was ready to begin her senior year, her foster parents divorced and “everybody got sent back to juvie,” she said.

“I didn’t want to go, so everyone just told me that they’d tell the state I went back home,” she said. “That wouldn’t happen today.”

Instead, she got an apartment using the money she had, and the social security she got as the sole survivor of her mother. She graduated from high school at mid-year and at 17 went to work full time at JC Penney.

Eventually, she went on to finish college and was married. She’s worked in the banking business for 26 years and has been married for 28 years. Her life has taken her from Southern California to Hawaii to Bremerton. She feels lucky to have had help from others when she needed it and that’s one of the reasons why the giving tree for foster kids is so important to her.

“It goes up the day after Thanksgiving,” she said. “But we already have the stars out.”

The stars are paper ornaments telling of the needs of the foster kids who are working toward independence. Brooks-Givens said bank employees begin in the summer buying the more expensive items like microwaves.

Each year, more than 200 foster kids “age out” of the foster care program in Kitsap County, said Josh Hinman, executive director for West Sound Youth for Christ. The nonprofit organization is under contract with the State of Washington to provide counseling services to youth in the foster care system. As a part of that, West Sound Youth for Christ runs an Independent Living Services program that assist youths from ages 15 to 21 with their transition to independence after they leave the foster care system.

As Hinman explains, once a foster care teen turns 18, they can no longer be in foster care and must provide for themselves.

“It’s a tricky situation,” he said. “Many times their foster parents would like to have them stay, but they have other younger foster kids in their home, and by state law, it takes a lot for that to happen.”

Because those other foster children are often from a vulnerable population with situations of abuse in their backgrounds, any foster children who are 18 and older have to undergo extensive background checks and be cleared to remain in the home. In many cases the aging foster children also have abuses in their pasts and it is difficult to have them stay in the home after they become an adult.

“They can come and stay with the family overnight, or for short visits,” he said. “But they really can’t live there anymore, even when the foster parents want that.”

So that’s when the Independent Living Services program comes into play. Hinman said when a foster child turns 15, they participate in classes to learn independent living skills, such as opening a bank account, balancing a check book, how to pay bills, how to look for a job, etc.

“This is the time when we help them get ready to live on their own,” he said. “And then, from ages 18 to 21 they remain a part of the program and we help them transition to live on their own.”

A big part of that is making sure that these kids graduate from high school or get their GED (General Educational Development)certificate. Hinman said more than 90 percent of those in their Independent Living Skills program graduate from high school or get their GED.

“Statistics say that 50 percent of the people who are homeless in the U.S. were once in the foster care system,” Hinman said. “What we’re trying to do is prevent that. We’re working with the kids while they are still in foster care to see that they have the skills to be independent and not end up homeless.”

There’s other needs, too. In a typical family, when a child turns 18, his or her parents set them up with an apartment or dorm as they head off to college or to begin a job. In the foster care world, that doesn’t happen.

“They need everything from a bed, to a microwave to a coffee pot,” he said. “And they need help paying rent and deposits until they get an income.”

That’s where Columbia Bank comes in.

While West Sound Youth for Christ has received $54,000 this year from a U.S. Department of Commerce (Consolidated Homeless) grant to help with housing kids who are leaving foster care, that money is used to pay deposits and first month rents. To date, 27 transiting foster care kids have been helped.

But their other needs have been met year-to-year through a holiday gift drive at Columbia Bank. The bank sets up a giving tree at their location at 10100 Silverdale Way NW, Silverdale.

Stars hang on the tree telling of the needs of the transitioning foster care kids. It may be an alarm clock, a set of pots and pans, linens, grocery gift cards, or even a warm winter coat. Bank customers and the general public are invited in to take a tag and return with the item and put it under the tree. Bank employees give generously, too.

“Because of what they do, our kids don’t have to worry about having the basic things,” Hinman said of Columbia Bank’s giving tree. “They can focus on going to school or to work and creating successful lives for themselves.”

This is the fifth year that Columbia Bank has had the giving tree, he said. Most years, more than 100 items are given and are distributed by the staff at West Sound Youth for Christ.

“We make sure that what each of our kids get is something that they really need,” he said. “Kids don’t just get stuff given to them. Everything is very intentional, to match their needs.”

The spirit of the giving means a lot to the kids and to Hinman.

“They collect a ton of gifts,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you have an account there or not. The community has been so wonderful and they’ve shown that they love our kids. How awesome is that?”

Each year clients and others know to come in to Columbia Bank and check out the tree because the branch is involved in other community events like the Silverdale Rotary’s Whaling Days Duck Race.

“We have a very giving community,” Brooks-Givens said. “Everybody just feels good about what they’re doing to help out.”

And she said for her it’s her way of paying it forward.

“People helped me and now I’m helping people,” she said.

To contact the bank call 360-692-6196. To contact Hinman, email westsoundyfc.org, or call 360-377-1899.

 

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