Remember how hard it was to be a teenager? All that angst and self-doubt, surrounded by family who didn’t understand you.
Now try to imagine what it’s like to be that teenager in foster care, at Christmas.
Jen Burrows is 28 now, but every December triggers her teenage memories of foster child Christmases.
“You want to feel special, but if you’re in foster care, you already know you aren’t,” she told me in a phone interview from her home in West Salem, Ohio. “Every Christmas, I’d go into my bedroom and just cry.”
Jen’s parents abandoned her when she was 18 months old. She and her sister, who is a year older, were raised by an abusive aunt and uncle for 12 years. When Jen was 14, she was placed in foster care. She spent most of the next four years with one foster family. She is quick to point out that for all her feelings of loss and sadness, she was “one of the lucky ones” at Christmas.
“When I was in the system, I’d go to the holiday party at Jobs and Family Services,” she said. “Santa was there passing out gifts, and each teenager got one. I can’t even remember what mine was. Most of the gifts were meant for little kids. What I do remember is looking around and thinking, ‘I am so grateful for my foster parents, who use their own money to give me a Christmas.’ Any gifts from foster parents come out of their own pockets, which means a lot of kids like me got nothing at all.”
This month, tens of thousands of teenagers in foster care across America and in your town have no idea whether anyone will remember them at Christmas. In the Cleveland area alone — where I live — nearly 800 teens are living in foster care. The local Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services is trying to raise awareness through its Giving Tree program so that wellmeaning donors — individual and corporate — will contribute to these older children in need.
It’s easy to buy gifts for little ones, department social workers told me. Lots of inexpensive and fun choices.
It’s more challenging to convince donors that teenagers need surprises, too. Good surprises, the kind that makes them feel special and helps them fit in. Most teens love gift cards, for example, for the chance to buy things they want rather than need.
“A lot of our kids don’t have iPhones and tablets and designer clothes,” Kimberly Mitchell said. “They don’t have the things other kids have.”
Her colleague Ericka Cabil cautioned against judging the children for wanting something other than basic necessities.
“When you’re a foster child, you’re already coming from a background that makes you feel different from everybody else,” Cabil said. “You don’t want it to show on the outside, too. A nice hairdo, nice clothes — they can hide signs of neglect on the inside.”
Jen Burrows knows firsthand the public shame of foster care and the tenacity of its internal wounds.
“Kids can be cruel. I was ridiculed at school for wearing used shoes that were too big or had holes in them and coats that my aunt’s kids wore in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Every kid is trying to fit in. Every kid wants to wear what ev- eryone else is wearing.”
She is hard on her younger self.
“ I still blame myself,” she said. “If I had spoken up sooner, I could have saved my sister and me from abuse.” She shrugs reminders that she was a child and that it was the teachers who saw the bruises but did nothing.
“It was hard for them to intervene,” she said.
Ten years have passed since Jen aged out of foster care. She is happily married now and working in a job she loves as a fulltime hairdresser in Ashland, Ohio. Her life, she said, has changed in wonderful ways.
“ I’m so happy. I’m so lucky,” she said. “But I know there are still thousands of teens in foster care whose lives are no different from what mine was at Christmas.”
She will do her part.
Jen is encouraging all of her clients to contribute to gifts for teens in foster care. She also is donating several haircuts, and one girl will get highlights for free, too.
“You have to make them feel special,” she said. “We all need a little glitter time.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.