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Daniel Heimpel

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Foster Care Counts

Posted: 05/18/2012 5:01 pm

Eight-year-old Gabbi happily munches on candy, a butterfly painted across her smiling face. A line of little girls in their Sunday best fidget while waiting their turn to get their faces painted also.

It is "Foster Mother's Day" and Gabbi is one of 2,200 foster children and their families who will cycle through Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker's 1.24-acre home and garden on Los Angeles' West Side. An army of 200 or more volunteers usher children to games on the tennis court, foster mothers to an impromptu salon set up in one of the rooms or to long buffet tables replete with salads, sandwiches and fruit.

"I love it," Gabbi says. "I think it's awesome, and if I knew the people who did all this I would tell God to bless them because they gave all of this to us."

On the balcony to the front entrance -- not far from where Gabbi's face was painted -- stands Jeanne Pritzker, who came up with this novel way of celebrating Mother's Day four years ago. She, like the volunteers standing on the steps looking up at her, wears a green T-shirt emblazoned with the words: "Foster Care Counts."

Currently studying for a Ph.D. in psychology, Pritzker often cites readings when she speaks -- in this case the neurobiology of altruism, which she says explains, "why doing this stuff feels so good."

"I hope today is the most fun day of your whole life," she says to the volunteers. "You get to make it [fun] and give it to others. Take that feeling home with you and keep it for the whole year."

Days like this, where everything is devoted to whimsy and fun are rare for LA County's foster youth, according to Armand Montiel, Director of Public Affairs for the County's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

"The county alone could never provide this," Montiel says while children and their families push past, upbeat music throbbing from the DJ stand close by. "We rely on private donors, in this case the Pritzker Family, to give that extra. We are always looking to partner with the community to enrich the lives of foster families, because the foster families are all about enriching the lives of children."

For Pritzker, today marks the start of something much larger than the already gargantuan undertaking that putting on "Foster Mother's Day" is. Rather, today is the showcase of Foster Care Counts, the new nonprofit organization she has launched to raise awareness and improve the lives of foster children and their families. For the field, having a heavyweight philanthropist like Pritzker join the funding landscape means much needed help for an under-resourced sector of the nonprofit world.

"We want to take advantage of the extraordinary amount of human capital that is available," she says. "There is this big universe of professional women -- investment bankers, lawyers, doctors -- who left their profession to raise children. The kids grow up and these women are still professional moms. We want to see these people lend their talents, ambition and intellect and passion to support foster children."

Pritzker envisions using the Internet to link up this, of yet untapped, army of potential mentors to help foster youth transition into adulthood.

In addition she will use Foster Care Counts to raise money and awareness to support public foster care administrations and the nongovernmental organizations that support foster children and their families. "We will help create bridges between what is needed and the resources we can tap into."

Pritzker's right hand in this effort is Winnie Wechsler, who served as the executive director of Phoenix Houses of California, which helps 1,200 people each day fight substance abuse. "Foster Care Counts will be an umbrella for raising awareness around needs," Wechsler says. "We are looking to support organizations making a difference for foster youth."

Back by the make-up station, Gabbi is joined by a newfound friend, another 8-year-old named Desiree. When this reporter asks if he can take a photograph, Gabbi tells Desiree to close her eyes, "that way you can see the whole butterfly."

The two take a look at the image on the camera's digital display, giggle and run off to find more candy or whatever little girls do on a day devoted to them and their families.

Face painting station.
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Gabbi waits her turn, anxious to see the result of the make up artist Karina Sumano's work. Sumano will paint the faces of scores of foster children throughout the day.
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"Foster Mother's Day," celebrated in Los Angeles, puts foster children and their families first.

This story first appeared in The Chronicle of Social Change.

For more information on Foster Care Counts visit: http://www.facebook.com/fostercarecounts

Daniel Heimpel is the Director of Fostering Media Connections and the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.

 

Follow Daniel Heimpel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/FosteringMC