By KENDRA SITTON
Hundreds of San Diegans help assist children in foster care each year in a variety of ways – from being a Court Appointed Special Advocate to mentoring foster youth as they transition to adulthood. With over 3,000 current and former foster youth in San Diego County, these volunteers provide services and fill in the gaps that overworked social workers cannot. May is Foster Care Awareness Month but these volunteers work year round to meet the needs of foster youth.
One nonprofit that seeks to care for the emotional, financial and academic needs of foster youth is Promises2Kids. The local nonprofit utilizes hundreds of volunteers each year for their core programs, which include helping foster youth attend college and reuniting foster siblings.
“Volunteers are critical to our organization,” Stephanie Ortega, COO of Promises2Kids said.
Judi Sinopoli has volunteered over 500 hours for Promises2Kids since she was first introduced to the organization in 2016 through her sister. She was heartbroken after watching a video about the struggles foster youth face and wondered if she could make a difference. The finance and accounting specialist immediately started volunteering and has continued to do so ever since. It was the first time in her life she volunteered but she has since ascended to being on Promises2Kids’ volunteer leadership team which plans events details and onboards new volunteers.
The Little Italy resident’s favorite aspect of her volunteerism is getting to reunite siblings that were placed in separate households in foster care. She said a “staggering” 40% of brothers and sisters in the foster care system are separated.
“The love of a sibling is so important to your development and your mental health,” Sinopoli said. “I think that the most near and dear to my heart is the Camp Connect because we get to see the siblings reunited.”
Before COVID-19, the organization hosted monthly group events where around 50 kids would attend and get to see their siblings for the day. Many of the events were exciting adventures for the kids: they went to laser tag, the Midway, Big Bear and even DisneyLand.
The pandemic limited those group events so instead the volunteers pivoted to helping the siblings reunite virtually. Ortega explained that the organization had to get creative More recently, they have hosted individual sibling sets at the park so they can see each other in person in an outdoor space.
“It may not have been a monthly thing because of the volume of kids in foster care that are separated but they still were able to do something,” Sinopoli said.
This year will see the return of the nonprofit’s most ambitious program after two years of cancellations: Camp Connect. Siblings spend four days camping in Julian in August each year to spend quality time together. It takes 100 volunteers for the trip.
Ortega said reuniting siblings is an important part of the organization’s work because separating siblings is an additional trauma that foster youth face.
“The children in the foster care system are there at no fault of their own. They were exposed to horrific abuse, neglect, all different types of abuse and they were removed for their safety. And a lot of times, the brothers and sisters, they’re the only ones that truly understand what each other had gone through,” Ortega said.
The organization has facilitated over 2,000 interactions between separated siblings.
“You need those relationships forever, not just during your childhood. And our job for camp was really to make sure that those brothers and sisters can maintain a relationship and so that they can continue that beyond the foster care system and have that ability to have family safety, security, and just know that they have somebody who loves them and is there for them,” Ortega added.
Sinopoli said that some of the major trips with the kids are exhausting but it is worth it when she gets to see the excitement of kids seeing their siblings again.
“The kids are happy that they’re building relationships. And so from that perspective, that’s the joy I get out of it,” she said.
To learn more about volunteering with Promises2Kids, visit promises2kids.org.