Rise Above is an organization that tries to make up for what it is most foster children have never had. Children, you see, should be protected and cherished, and most are. But when a child enters the foster care system, it’s usually because of neglect or abuse. And that’s as much an abuse of trust as much as of body and soul. It’s damaging to the psyche.
This is where Rise Above comes in, granting kids wishes beyond their needs. It’s one way of telling these children what they so need to hear: “We love you enough to spoil you a little. We think you’re worth it.”
And it’s why Rise Above tries never to say no to a foster child who fills out a request form for a prom dress, a hockey stick, ballet classes, or a family vacation to Disneyland. These children have heard the word “no” way too many times. Rise Above is about saying, “Yes!”
It’s a mission Kars4Kids can get behind. We believe in giving children what they need to get ahead. We believe in making them feel special. That’s why we were pleased to help Rise Above in a small way with a $500 small grant.
Beyond the grant, we thought to help spread word of the work Rise Above is doing. That’s why we spoke to Co-founder & Executive Director of the Rise Above Foundation, Sarah Baldiga. We think you’ll enjoy hearing about this organization that’s helping kids rise above neglect and abuse to grow up to be the best they can be.
Just like any other kids.
Kars4Kids: You co-founded Rise Above in 2009 and have created “2000 smiles.” What made you embark on this project?
Sarah Baldiga: Rise Above began in 2009 to fill the need of providing foster youth with extracurricular activities and experiences that most of their peers are able to participate in. As social workers for the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families, Rise Above’s founders witnessed first-hand the powerful effect providing everyday childhood experiences could have on foster children’s physical, mental and social health and the great need that existed to give more children these opportunities.
Kars4Kids: Watching the clip we found on the Rise Above’s website, we discovered there are 9,000 children in foster care in Massachusetts. How does this compare to other states?
Sarah Baldiga: There are about 500,000 children in foster care across the U.S. and 9,000 here in Massachusetts alone. HERE is a link to KIDS COUNT data, which shows the full breakdown of children in foster care by state.
Kars4Kids: Your website explains how little money foster parents receive to care for their foster children, around $23 a day. But that doesn’t explain why foster parents aren’t able to provide their foster children with guitar lessons, laptops, and prom dresses, for instance. Are most foster parents in it for the money?
Sarah Baldiga: Foster parents receive about $700 per month, which really isn’t too much when you think about that covering a youth’s food, housing and other basic needs. There is very little left over for extracurricular activities. Sports fees and equipment, dance classes and recital costumes, musical instruments and prom can costs thousands per youth each year.
In our experience, foster parents are loving adults who are truly committed to supporting youth who are experiencing foster care through the daunting challenges they are facing in their young lives. In Massachusetts and across the country, we are in desperate need of more caring adults who want to make an immeasurable difference in the life of a child by becoming a foster parent!
Kars4Kids: What was the most moving response ever received by Rise Above from a foster child?
Sarah Baldiga: We’ve received so many beautiful thank you notes from youth , foster parents and social workers. One of our favorites was from 17-year old Salena. She wrote us:
“Dear Rise Above: Thank you soo much for giving me money to buy my prom dress. I had one of the nicest dresses at prom. I stood out and this time it was in a good way, which I was worried about because I thought I would get an old borrowed dress, but that was not the case this time thank to you. Prom night was one of the best nights of my life. I had fund and wasn’t worried about people looking at me and judging me because I felt beautiful, just like every girl should, even girls in foster care. I can’t thank you enough or explain how happy you made me because it can’t be explained in words. Thank you!”
Kars4Kids: The Rise Above website mentions that the organization, in addition to children, assists college students and young adults. What are the upper and lower limits, age-wise, of Rise Above recipients?
Sarah Baldiga: Rise Above serves any child in the Massachusetts foster care system, from age 1 to age 23.
Kars4Kids: Under “Examples of what we fund” we noted that family vacations are among the items that have been requested and granted by Rise Above. Is this a vacation for the foster child with the foster family? That is probably a much-needed item!
Sarah Baldiga: Rise Above has helped lots of kids be able to go on vacation with their foster parents and siblings. We love helping kids to travel near and far to see new sights, and we’ve helped lots of kids with museum passes and Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and other theme park passes.
Kars4Kids: It was upsetting to read that fewer than 3% of foster youth go to college. It’s so nice that Rise Above tries to encourage these students with care packages of college essentials. How many care packages do you give out in an average year?
Sarah Baldiga: Nationally, less than 3% of foster youth go to college and those who do- approximately 600 in Massachusetts- face daunting challenges. Without families, they miss out on the emotional and financial support that their peers rely on. Rise Above’s college care package project applauds these youth’s accomplishments will a box filled with study snacks, school supplies, hygiene items, laundry detergent pods and other dorm essentials. The content of the boxes is donated by Rise Above supporters and generous local businesses.
This year, our goal is send out least 250 college care packages to youth like 21-year old Oumaima:
“This is my fourth year in college… and for the past few years I’ve watched my roommates and friends from college receive care packages from families members during holidays and finals week and I’ve always wanted to receive one myself so thank you so making that happen. The note inside the package put a smile on my face.”
Kars4Kids: We’ve tried to imagine the highs and lows of your job. It must be amazing when you can put a smile on a foster child’s face. But there must be times that Rise Above must say no or times you have encountered a truly tragic circumstance. What was the most difficult or frustrating situation you encountered as the Executive Director of Rise Above?
Sarah Baldiga: Thankfully, we are almost always able to say “yes!” to an activity request we receive for a child. However, sometimes we can’t afford to fulfill the whole amount being asked for. For example, a child might want to try taking tap and ballet dance classes, but we might only be able to help pay for the tap dance classes. That’s tough! Kids in foster care hear “no” a lot, and so we try very, very hard to say “yes!” every time we can! We’re determined to grow Rise Above so that we never have to say no.
Kars4Kids: What was the most amazing request Rise Above was able to grant?
Sarah Baldiga: One of my favorite requests happened last summer when Rise Above helped a teen, Juliette, participate in a summer music program. Juliette is an exceptionally talented vocalist and she was accepted into the prestigious Boston University Tanglewood Institute. It was an incredible opportunity for her, but the price was over $7,000. The Institute gave her a generous scholarship, Rise Above was able to contribute about $3,0000, and we worked with several agencies to help come up with the balance. It was truly a collaborative effort. Juliette had an amazing experience at the Institute, learning about posture, composition, music theory and diction, and studying under world-renown musician and composers.
Kars4Kids: What’s next for Sarah Baldiga and Rise Above?
Sarah Baldiga: Rise Above’s vision is for all youth in Massachusetts who experience foster care as part of their childhood to have the same opportunities as their peers. Our goal is to continue to grow as quickly as possible and in the next year or two to be serving 1,000 children annually. Our long-term goal is be able to give each of the 9,000 kids in our state who are experiencing foster care the opportunities to participate in whatever extracurricular activities they’d like!