By Daniel Heimpel
In the world of foster kids, victories are few and often small. But this week, Santa Monica Pier was transformed, with more than 1,500 volunteers lined up in a blustery wind to meet the children with whom they'd spend the day.
The 10th Annual Day of the Child, put on by Children Uniting Nations (CUN), hooks up mentors and foster children, including first-time adults who've never thought about it before.
Near the roller coasters a young man sat with a young boy. Eight-year-old Angel hadn't been on a roller coaster before and was anxious to get going, leaving a paper plate piled with cookies in the hands of mentor Erwin Orellana.
Orellana said his girlfriend had told him about the event. “I wanted to get involved.” Angel wanted to get involved with the rides. He pulled his mentor away.
In a booth next to a sea of smiling kids, I met Pamela Clay of Living Advantage — a non-profit that takes care of simple things the system often fails to do — in this case, providing foster kids with their birth records, social security cards and picture ID.
“We can’t depend on the system,” she said of the child welfare establishment that places and cares for kids nationwide. “We got to do it ourselves.”
A big part of that is accomplished by those willing to mentor, according to Daphna Ziman, founder of Children Uniting Nations and a well-known child advocate. She says 10 percent of the people who volunteered at the Day of The Child will become lifelong mentors, and once you jump in, “You can’t allow your personal life to be an obstacle.”
Children Uniting Nations has paired thousands of mentors with children, helping make those connections stick by establishing realistic responsibilities for the volunteers.
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Two mentor tracks require a one-year commitment. Academic mentors are expected to provide two to three hours a week, while relationship-based mentors commit two to three days a month. The group has seen higher grades, less teen pregnancy and less drug use among children who are mentored.
One adult who made it to Santa Monica Pier was 19-year-old Michael Ghassemlou, who found a corner to share a hot dog with a boy he was mentoring for the day. This was the second year Ghassemlou came to the Day of the Child. He was alone, just a young man giving his Sunday to something bigger.
The small boy, Bryan, showed off the medal he had earned 20 minutes earlier in a dancing contest. Ghassemlou said he wanted Bryan “to realize that he can do anything he wants, as long as he doesn’t give up.”
Within two years of leaving the foster care system in Los Angeles, the Children’s Law Center estimates half of these young people will be unemployed, almost one-third will become homeless and one in five will be in jail.