Together We Rise Supports Foster Care Kids When They Need It Most
In 2008, college student Danny Mendoza discovered that his 9-year-old cousin had been living in a car.
The boy was placed in foster care, and while trying to help him maintain some semblance of childhood, Mendoza quickly became frustrated—not only at the lack of resources available to foster kids but at a system that essentially tosses kids out at 18 without doing much to prepare them for life after.
Helping those children became Mendoza’s mission. Still a college student at the time, he founded Together We Rise, a California-based nonprofit that empowers foster children through initiatives such as mentoring, tutoring, athletic programs, and advocacy.
“Kids in foster care in America are never really talked about; it’s like an unheard cause,” Mendoza says. “Our goal is to share the statistics and share the issue, so people will help out, and it definitely makes a huge difference.”
Current statistics on foster care children don’t provide much in the way of optimism for their future: According to the nonprofit's website, two of three foster kids will die, go to jail, or become homeless within one year of aging out of the system. Even before that happens, the average foster child will endure life-altering upheaval; removed from their families because of abuse or neglect, they may change foster homes frequently, often without warning. Many age out of the system even before they’ve completed their high school education.
“Eighty percent of the prison population was once in foster care,” Mendoza says. “Their future is set out for them, and without the right help, that’s where they’re going to end up.”
Anchoring those kids with a supportive community is what Together We Rise, or TWR, is all about. In addition to the programs that help prepare kids for college and full-time work, the group also focuses on softening the experience of foster care.
For instance, its "Sweet Cases" initiative provides younger children with their own duffel bags, which contain a hygiene kit, a blanket, coloring books, and toys. The importance of such a gift may be lost on outsiders, but for foster kids who are used to hauling their few belongings around in garbage bags, it’s a luxury.
One of the nonprofit’s most-popular projects is its donation-funded Build a Bike giveaway, which has so far provided 2,000 BMX bicycles to foster kids around the country.
“We teach kids how to ride,” Mendoza says. “Most of them have never ridden a bike before, so it’s a pretty cool experience and definitely a feeling they’ll never forget.” The bikes allow kids to feel a sense of normalcy with their friends, and they also provide them with vital transportation to school and when they get older, to work.
But distributing that many bicycles to so many kids hasn’t been without its difficulties. Mendoza says that until last year, he had to rely on rented vans, loaded down with volunteers and equipment, that frequently overheated on their cross-country trips. Help finally came in the form of a brand-new Toyota Tundra, which TWR won last year through Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good program, an online contest that lets Facebook users vote for the nonprofit they believe should win a free vehicle.
Still, with almost half a million kids in the U.S. foster care system, helping all of them remains TWR’s greatest challenge. Mendoza says that his personal belief in those children keeps him going. “For us, we’ve seen kids get saved just by people caring,” he says. “These kids just need a little more attention and a little more love, and that can make all the difference in their lives.”
If you'd like to help Together We Rise support our nation's foster care kids, visit its website.
To find out more about Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good Program, which is running through November 19, visit the campaign's Facebook page, and discover other nonprofits that need your vote.