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Foster System volunteer

From Foster Care to Fostering Care

By Anne Macdonald

At age 6, Heidi Edwards got into her mother's car with her two brothers and her sister. Though not a long journey, it was a journey of change. Heidi knew that, though she might visit, she would never again live in the house where she had grown up. "I felt overwhelmed and scared," said Heidi, describing the arrival at her first foster home.

Heidi EdwardsDuring the next eleven years, Heidi lived in more than twenty foster homes. School added to the disruption. She attended six grade schools and three junior highs. Fortunately she managed to stay put at one high school. Throughout this time Heidi struggled with her mother's deteriorating mental illness and then with her parents' divorce.

Her experience in the foster system didn't beat Heidi. Quite the contrary--it motivated her to become responsible for her own success. Now a math/physics major at Westminster with a 3.92 GPA, she plans a career in civil engineering. When not in class or studying, you might find Heidi tutoring math or physics, at a LEMMA math club meeting, helping underprivileged grade schoolers improve their test scores, or playing in the handbell choir at Cottonwood Presbyterian Church. Heidi's productiveness and contributions to the community don't stop there. Though she may have to sacrifice some sleep here and there, Heidi spends many hours working for the organization she is most passionate about--uFOSTERsuccess.

After a year of lunches, Barbara Feaster, 30; her spouse, Michael Feaster, 32; Melissa Rhea, 30; and Heidi, the youngest, 20--all foster alumni--launched uFOSTERsuccess. "Once we made up our mind to start, we were so determined to go ahead with it that we were not going to let any barriers get in our way," said Barbara Feaster. "The challenges came after we launched. We want to stay true to our identity and maintain an organization made up entirely of foster alumni, while partnering with child welfare professionals," she said.

Last June the group founded the Utah nonprofit to help improve the lives of foster children. Since then, they have given numerous presentations to professionals working with foster children. "Heidi and the others spoke at a press conference at the state capitol. Everyone was really impressed with the initiative of the group to start something like this," said Kelsey Lewis, director of recruitment for the Utah Foster Care Foundation.

"We feel fortunate to have uFOSTERsuccess as a partner," said Lewis. "They bring that extra information about what it is like to be in foster care, and they share it with prospective foster families. We have like minds: we want to educate the community about foster care and find ways to improve the system," she said.

Heidi explained that when children leave the foster system at 18, they often feel they are on their own without support. "We provide them with the resources to network or help them find a place to spend Christmas. Support comes in many forms--sometimes it's as simple as having someone ask, 'How was your day?'" said Heidi. "We [the board] have all aged out of foster care, so we all know what it is like," she added.

The nonprofit's Web page offers foster children an unmoderated discussion forum, resources available to youth in foster care, and information on foster-care legislative issues. Heidi points out the value of sharing your thoughts with others in the same situation. "Sometimes foster children will share things with each other that they wouldn't share with a professional," said Dr. Richard Anderson, director of the Division of Child and Family Services for Salt Lake.

uFOSTERsuccess is currently in the process of obtaining 501c3 status, which would make it a national nonprofit. The organization membershope to establish chapters in other states.uFoster Group

"I want the system to be better for the next group of youth who go through it," said Heidi. "I think my unique perspective makes my voice more powerful," she added. Anderson agrees.

"We have been doing youth training for those [foster children] who are approaching 18 and will be out of state custody," said Anderson. "uFOSTERsuccess really helps because now we have models like Heidi who are happy, successful, and moving forward," he said. And moving forward she is.

Along with the rest of her ambitious agenda, one of the priorities of Heidi and her group is to start a support program for children when they leave foster care. "Case workers are too overworked to keep the connection when someone graduates from the system. They need a mentor to encourage them. And they need to understand they are responsible for their own lives and their own decisions," she said. uFOSTERsuccess plans to seek funding through corporations and the public.

"I see uFOSTERsuccess eventually lobbying for foster kids," said Dr. David Chadwick, a pediatric researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine. "The need is immense. Making foster care better requires resources. It's amazing. People will lobby for a highway, but right now there is no lobby for these children," he said.

Once the organization matures, "We'd like to see uFOSTERsuccess become a powerful voice in terms of changing the legislation for foster-care issues," said Heidi. In looking toward the future the ever-ambitious Heidi envisions "some day marching on Washington's Capitol Hill to improve the foster care system."