Family reunions in the park

Foster Youth Inc. hosts a picnic for foster children to connect with siblings

May 11, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Under a pavilion at Druid Hill Park, a little girl deftly twirled a hula hoop.

The spry 10-year-old easily matched dance steps with a crush of practiced teenagers and sat patiently while a volunteer painted her face with feline features.

But the minute she spotted her brother, she raced toward him.

She held him in a fierce hug, saying the 11-year-old's name over and over. The pair had not seen each other since Easter.

No one better understood that reaction than Shantel Randolph, a former foster child who organized the picnic to reunite siblings in foster care.

"For many of these kids, the biggest issue is being separated from their siblings," said Randolph, 26, the third of nine siblings. "Many foster parents cannot take in all the siblings, and unless these kids can reconnect, they don't always know their family. So this picnic is to reunite them and give them a day in the park. They can have fun together as a family."

With a fellowship from the Open Society Institute, Randolph has worked with Foster Youth Inc., a collaboration between the Public Justice Center and a group of Baltimore Freedom Academy students. Members of FYI share their own stories, work to improve the foster care system and help one another grow up.

"These kids have seen the challenging situations in life and are trying to improve their lives and others'," said Rhonda B. Lipkin, a child welfare advocate for the justice center who established FYI two years ago. "Many of them know what it's like to lose parents and siblings and feel like you have no support."

Randolph, with FYI's assistance, invited more than 200 foster children to the four-hour event. Names of some of the children could not be published because of safety fears involving split families.

"FYI helped me see how other foster kids better their lives," said Jermerriah Talbot, 16, who has been in foster care for four years. "This is my first-ever picnic."

Children, accompanied by their foster parents, arrived throughout the afternoon, and often were enveloped in hugs from a sister or brother.

"I am looking to see smiles as kids are reunited all day today," said academy sophomore William Mathews, a 15-year-old member of FYI.

Like William, senior Brion Gill, 17, has never experienced foster care, but she knows how she missed her college-bound older brother.

"I really can feel for these people who have lost their siblings," she said. "That's why this picnic is monumental. That's why I wanted to work on it."

FYI members, wearing bright blue T-shirts with the FYI logo, spent pre-picnic time decorating the Columbus Pavilion at the park with blue and white balloons, streamers and baskets of flowers. While other volunteers grilled hot dogs and hamburgers and kept sodas chilled and bowls filled with snacks, FYI members engaged the younger children in board games, crafts and picture taking.

FYI member Nadja Bentley-Hammond, 18, expected to see her younger brother Troy Bentley. While she has spoken to him on the phone, she has not seen Troy for more than a year.

"Once they split you up, you feel really alone," said Nadja, an academy student. "It is very hard to stay in contact."

Nadja has frequently shared how at 8, teachers learned she was abused and abruptly removed her from a foster home, where she had lived for two years. She remembered carrying all her possessions in two plastic garbage bags to an emergency placement.

"It was a better place, but I didn't know that at the time," she said. Nadja refused to change her name, when that emergency family adopted her three years ago, but she did add her adoptive mother's maiden name to hers.

"I am Bentley-Hammond," she said. "I love my mother, but I'm still a Bentley. I have brothers and sisters, named Bentley."

She graduates from the academy this month and plans to study psychology at Allegheny College in the fall.

"I want to work with kids," she said. "I can tell them how to move on and not hold in the bad stuff."

FYI members Ashley and Shenika Johnson, 17-year-old twins, have lived together in a foster care kinship program, which keeps siblings together, for nearly six years. They attend different high schools and will go to Morgan and Towson universities in the fall.

"I have always known that when I come home, she will be there," said Ashley. "A lot of foster kids are not given this option."

At a photo table, FYI members took family portraits and framed the pictures for children to take home. The smiling images would give the children a memory of the day and a connection to family, they said.

Randolph says she hopes to expand FYI to other city schools and make the picnic an annual tradition.

"A lot works against these kids," she said. "Keeping contact with their families works for them."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.