For most of us this month marks an annual tradition of gathering with family and friends for the holidays. For others the season can pass entirely without family get-togethers or celebration. Regrettably, this frequently can be the case for the 25,000 teenagers who age-out of foster care each year.
Pushed suddenly into independence at age 18, these young adults who often have been victims of abuse and neglect suddenly are left on their own to figure out how feed, clothe and house themselves. It's no surprise that many former foster youth struggle under such a daunting challenge -- or that 20 percent end up spending at least one night homeless within a year of leaving foster care.
Too often these young adults lack a high school diploma or the basic life and job skills necessary to succeed. Few have the critical support structure and safety net of family and friends -- resources that are all the more important today given the harsh economic reality of the recent recession.
How bleak and cold the holidays must look to an 18-year-old emerging from foster care with no family or friends, and no place to call home.
Providing opportunity and a brighter future for these youth is a complex problem that requires a comprehensive set of solutions, from legal reforms to social service improvements. Even with the best intentions and access to adequate resources, it will take time to fix.
In the meantime, there is more that each of us can do. Foster families play a critical role, as do those who donate money or volunteer their time to help abused and neglected children; beyond this we can and must start making a difference by raising awareness.
Last year, a Harris Poll commissioned by National CASA revealed the startling fact that 83 percent of adults know little or nothing about the experiences of children in foster care. Yet there are more than 500,000 children in the foster care system today. They are around us, in our communities, in our kids' schools.
Throughout the year and especially during the holidays we need to be more aware of the challenges facing foster children in our communities. A word of encouragement, a small gesture, reaching out to a child who appears to need help to check if they're okay -- these are simple but powerful ways that each of us can show that we care.
Much work remains before we can give every foster child a future they can call their own but the new year would be a very good time to start.
Follow Michael Piraino on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CASAforChildren