When I was a child, I would count the days until my birthday arrived. I remember feeling so excited about turning 10 years old that I considered myself to be 9 ¾ in the months leading up to that special day. But for children in foster care, birthdays are not always fun and exciting, celebrated, or remembered:
“For me, birthdays just meant one more year in care, sort of like an anniversary. No cake, no balloons, no presents. Just another day that reminded me of how sad I was to be in the foster care system.” – Krizia, TX Former Foster Youth
Krizia remembers her birthday as just another day in a world of more important events for the people around her. She is one of five women who have kindly provided us with firsthand accounts of their birthday experiences in foster care. All five women have aged out of the foster care system.
“It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college when I was told by a close friend that my birthday MATTERS.” – Marion, NJ Former Foster Youth
Marion was in foster care for 19 years. She has few memories of her various caregivers and placements, but she will always remember Ms. Samuels. It was around the time of Marion’s 8th birthday that she was placed with Ms. Samuels, following four years of abuse by her former foster parent. She felt safe with Ms. Samuels, but was still scared and didn’t know what to expect. On her 8th birthday, Ms. Samuels surprised her with a candlelit birthday cake and a chorus of “Happy Birthday” sung by Ms. Samuels, her son, and even the family dog. At that moment, she knew that Ms. Samuels accepted her as one of her own children. More than 10 years later, Ms. Samuels is now Marion’s Godmother and wishes her a happy birthday each year.
“It doesn’t take a lot to see that someone cares, and that kindness has stuck with me.” – Becca, AL Former Foster Youth
Becca was in foster care at birth for a few months and again from age 12 to age 19. She lived with more than two dozen foster parents. Though she didn’t get to celebrate many of her birthdays, she does remember her 15th birthday. Her caregiver at the time knew it would have been the year of Becca’s Quinceañera, so she treated Becca to a beautiful dress, limo, and the chance to celebrate with her best friends. This meaningful gesture helped Becca celebrate in a way that would keep her close to her family and culture.
Children in foster care live separately from their birth parents and are sometimes separated from their siblings. The opportunity to reconnect with siblings is significant, especially on a birthday. For Jaleesa’s 17th birthday, her foster mother invited Jaleesa’s two older sisters and CASA worker to the house for lunch and cake:
“I was elated that they took the time to come celebrate with me.” – Jaleesa, CA Former Foster Youth
Looking back on the day, Jaleesa remembers how happy she was to receive two gifts of sentimental value. From her foster mother she received a keepsake box with pictures of her foster family, birth family, and friends. Nine years later, Jaleesa still uses this gift to hold concert tickets and pictures from special occasions. From her CASA worker she received a birthstone ring, which Jaleesa imagined she could someday give to her own daughter on her 17th birthday:
“This particular birthday was especially memorable and I had tangible things that would trigger memories of having a ‘happy birthday’ while being in foster care.” – Jaleesa, CA Former Foster Youth
A birthday gift is especially meaningful to children in foster care who are not used to feeling acknowledged on their birthdays:
“Growing up in foster care extremely limited my ability to experience a birthday in a positive manner. I was often left alone, gift-less, and sad; this was my normal.” – Gina, NJ Former Foster Youth
It wasn’t until the end of Gina’s junior year in college that she had a birthday to remember. Her best friend, Renee, understood Gina’s apprehension about her birthday — so she decided to plan a special party. When Gina arrived at the party, she was surprised to find all of her closest friends wearing her favorite color and bearing gifts. Gina recalls this day as the best birthday she ever had because it reaffirmed her ability to hope and to trust.
In the United States there are 397,122 children living without permanent families in the foster care system (Source: AFCARS Report, No. 20). These children may share similar experiences to Marion, Jaleesa, Becca, Gina, and Krizia. You can help provide these children with birthdays to remember by granting a wish, donating to A Birthday Wish, or learning about ways to help children in New Jersey foster care.
“Birthdays should matter for everyone and if you are reading this blog I encourage you to grant a wish, a wish that some still may never understand or have the privilege of experiencing.” – Marion, NJ Former Foster Youth