The holidays will be a little brighter for a lot of teens this season. For the second year in a row, every teenager in foster care in the state of Ohio will receive two $25 gift cards, thanks to an outreach spearheaded by one local church.
There are 4,361 foster teens in the state of Ohio, and each will receive gift cards to places like Amazon, Chick-fil-A, Target and more — accompanied by a holiday card with a thoughtful handwritten message.
The initiative started in 2019 with a simple question from One Church in Gahanna, Ohio: How can we help? Wanting to give back to kids in their own community, One Church met with Franklin County Children Services.
“I think when you’re trying to figure out how to help somebody, probably the first move is to ask,” Greg Ford, the lead pastor at One Church, tells Yahoo Life. “So when we met with Franklin County Children Services, we just asked, ‘At Christmastime, what is the biggest unmet need?’”
Ford says they quickly replied: foster teens.
“People think about the younger kids needing to feel special, needing to get toys,” Elizabeth Crabtree, director of volunteers at FCCS, tells Yahoo Life. “And our teenagers need just as much attention as a younger child around the holiday season.”
“A lot of people want to buy the toys and stuff for the younger kids, so the teens are left out, which I think was eye-opening for all of us,” Dionna Carter tells Yahoo Life. Carter is the outreach director at One Church, and manages their Foster Teen Christmas Outreach.
Teenagers can be difficult to buy for, so One Church collected $25 gift cards that would empower the teens to purchase something they’d love. One Church was hoping they’d collect enough to give a few teens one gift card, but they were blown away by the donations they received; that first year, they collected enough to give every one of the 775 teens in Franklin County three $25 gift cards.
“It was something that had such a natural momentum within our church,” Ford says. “And we thought, ‘Man, if this works here, maybe if we partner up with some other churches and businesses, maybe we can hit the whole state.’”
So last year they decided to expand. At the time, the goal felt “massive”; but by teaming up with other churches and organizations, they again exceeded expectations, collecting enough to give every foster teen in Ohio two $25 gift cards.
And they’ve hit that goal again this year, raising almost $275,000 statewide.
Ford says the generosity from their community has been incredible — and also a strong show of unity.
“We literally had other teenagers that were getting involved; other teenagers that were buying gift cards for foster teenagers,” he says.
“I think it comes from a deep place of goodness, and a desire, when you look around the world and you see all the bad news, all the division, the polarization — whether it’s through politics or different issues that people see differently — that I think when people see any opportunity to come together, they want to seize it.”
And while One Church is a Christian community, Ford says the mission of the Foster Teen Christmas Outreach is something people from all corners can get behind.
“We don’t necessarily have to agree on theology about God, or you don’t have to go to our church,” Ford says. “If we agree on values — like, ‘here are these young people who need somebody to show up for them’ — let’s do it.”
The gift cards reach the teens through their caseworkers; One Church gives the gift cards to foster care agencies, and the caseworkers within the agencies distribute them. Social workers have a tough job helping teens navigate the foster care system, and they often dig into their own pockets to pay for lunch at a restaurant or any other little treat that might help brighten a foster teen’s day. Crabtree says that for these caseworkers, the outreach program has been “huge.”
“The thing that’s been impactful that’s not often realized is we have caseworkers who are out in the field doing what is an incredibly challenging job,” Crabtree says. “And to be able to do something positive for our youth that is unexpected has been huge for them.”
“They’re the ones who are boots on the ground, in the field, and they see the need,” Carter says of social workers’ reaction to the outreach program. “They see what these teens are going through, the transitions in their lives. And a lot of them have been super moved by the fact that there’s people in the community that care enough to do this every year.”
Ford and Carter say the gift card outreach is “just the start,” and that One Church wants to expand its mission next year. They’re looking into partnering with organizations that work with young people who have aged out of the foster care system, to help provide support as foster teens transition into adulthood and become independent.
“We want to make an impact on their life to help them to have a great life, so obviously that’s more than just a gift card,” Ford says. “There’s more to it than that. There’s what they do with the rest of their life in terms of employment and working through even their mental health and their emotions.”
One Church also hopes their initiative will inspire others outside of Ohio to jumpstart an outreach for foster teens in their own state.
“Something like buying a gift card doesn’t solve the bigger problem,” Ford says, “but what it does is, you enter into somebody’s life with them a little bit, even just by one little act of generosity.”
While fundraising for this year’s gift cards has closed, One Church is keeping the giving tab open, with all funds collected going towards gift cards for 2022. You can learn more about how to donate money for a gift card or how to mail a gift card to One Church by visiting their website.
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