TICKET TO DREAM

One child enters foster care every two seconds, due to their parents inability to care for them. Today there are 425,000 in the foster care system – the average age of entry is eight. These children may face significant challenges – anxiety, stress, changing schools frequently, low rates of high school graduation. When moving from one home to the next, children in the foster care system often lack basic essentials and belongings – books being one of them. Ticket to Dream aims to let foster kids just be kids, by providing the essentials, experiences, and support to thrive.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

I'm speaking today with Gina Davis who is the executive director and president of Ticket to Dream. Thank you so much for making time to speak with us today.

 

Gina Davis

I’m excited to be here.

 

Molly Ness

So, our work in the podcast is to showcase the people and programs who are doing innovative work to provide book access to children who are often overlooked in society. And obviously, the work that you guys do with Ticket to Dream focuses on children in foster care, so can you tell us more specifically about your program and how it operates.

 

Gina Davis

Yes so we are a foundation that focuses on helping foster kids just be kids- whether that making sure that they have shoes that fits their feet, pajamas for their first night in care, a book to escape into and really build those school skills that are a lot of times behind the average grade level. And then also looking to extracurricular activities and youth aging out support, so we really look at all of these big gaps across the country that really help foster youth succeed in school, succeed in life, and then become successful adults.

 

Molly Ness

So, what are some of the challenges that foster children face?

 

Gina Davis

There's a lot. They have major hurdles against them. So, one, a new child enters foster care every two minutes and there's over 420,000 of them in care. They could be days old- their average age is eight years old. They could also be a teenager- there’s the whole spectrum of kids. Every race, every background. Some of them with medical needs. Some- you know just an everyday child. It's just they’re kids- they’re kids that need help and unfortunately, they're experiencing trauma. They are experiencing loss. They may have entered care because they have been neglected or abused or don't have a home or they maybe even just a death of their parents or loved ones or the imprisonment of those loved ones, but these kids have done nothing wrong to come into care. They just have this thrust upon them and it's incredibly scary. And then once we get in the care, we think oh they’re taken care of. They’re in foster care. Their trauma is behind them, but they move frequently; changing homes over and over again. And each time they move, they lose three to six months of educational readiness- right. They’re losing all this speed and they're already usually are behind, to begin with. Also, there's trauma. No child is going to accept willingly and is going to do nicely with changing everything they know at a moment's notice and having no control over anything in their life. So, they're graduating right now at about 50%. They're graduating high school at about 3%- sorry college at 3%. They- when they age out which 20,000 of them do every single year, they often leave without a job, high school diploma. 40% become homeless within two years. They're feeding into human trafficking actually. 60% of our domestic human trafficking is kids from foster care, so they have just these major hurdles to come over because they're changing homes so often. There's a lack of resources in foster care as a whole. There’s a national shortage of foster parents that want to take on this challenge and that can financially do so because the stipend paid to them isn't enough. It falls about 60% short of what it actually costs to have a child because so often these kids are coming into a home at a moment's notice. They may have been pulled from school, may have come from a hospital or a police station. And they either have nothing- absolutely nothing or they have or given a few minutes and a trash bag to pack their belongings to take to a new home. Now, a six-year-old doesn't know how to pack for a new home. They’re not grabbing pajamas and their toothbrush. They’re not grabbing matching outfits or shoes that fit. They’re in a state of fear and trauma. Who knows what's in that bag, but it's not going to be helpful- right? And there's not someone really- it's not like it's a planned experience. It's in this moment of fear. So, we make sure to help provide these essential items for that first night and as they grow which is where books come in really really well to not only because of how important books are to learning, but also the escapism that a book can provide. The comfort that a book can provide. That nighttime ritual which is a really scary time for little kids particularly getting that bedtime story, connecting with someone and seeing that someone cares about them. And for those early readers or those good readers to be able to escape from their life for a moment and just breathe and- you know read a book and escape and take that moment to themselves. So, we work with over 210 nonprofit partners across the country. Some of them do behavioral therapy. Some of them do educational support. Some of them are doing housing and adoption, but all of them- their kids need shoes. Their kids need books. Their kids need extracurricular access. Their kids need confidence and … childhood- to be honest.

 

Molly Ness

So, tell us a little bit more about the logistics of how you meet those needs- particularly around book access. So, you've got all of these partners- I assume that you're operating nationwide. How are you reaching these kids and getting books into their hands? 

 

Gina Davis

Yes. So, that was a tricky part. We actually started over a decade ago and we started as retailers and we wanted to help foster kids across a large region. And it was hard because foster care is done really regionally. And so, to do so, we had to form all of these different partnerships and we thought we can make this easier. It's too hard for people to help. So, we created a nationwide network of foster care non-profit partners that we work with and then we work with corporate supporters and corporate partners. And actually, just individuals too- whether it's a Girl Scout trooper, a church or just a mom or a dad that wants to help- to donate locally and we rapidly deploy them. Luckily, on the book drive, our corporate partner Mattress Firm actually hosts a book drive. It just ended in July, but they accept books year-round as well as other items that we’re collecting throughout the year. So, books can be dropped off at any Mattress Firm. And they essentially kind of all come together and then we allocate them to each nonprofit partner in that area based on how many kids they serve. So, it's really working as a team model of working with our corporate partners as a team, our communities as a team, and then working with our nonprofit partners, so that we can really quickly get it out to as many kids as possible and fill those gaps. Right where you donate, it stays local to where you are which is great because there’s foster kids everywhere.

 

Molly Ness

Well I'm actually thrilled to hear that Mattress Firm does book drives. On my front porch now, I have started a- we call it The Porch Project. We- my daughter and I have started a book drive and we've collected probably a thousand books that are sitting in boxes ready to go. So, after this, I can take them over to Mattress Firm...

 

Gina Davis

Oh sure, yeah for sure.

 

Molly Ness

I’ll encourage my community members to take advantage of that resource. Obviously knowing that this is a big-box retailer who is pretty widely available for people... 

 

Gina Davis

Yeah. They've got 3,000 stores across the country. You know- most, I can't remember exactly how many states, but most of them so if there's not one Mattress Firm near you, there’s probably 10. So, it's usually an easy way. Their staff is great. Their warehouses are great. And we really work together to fill that need wherever they have- wherever they have stores.

 

Molly Ness

And maybe I will call my local store and see if I can dovetail it with their dropping off a mattress to a neighbor and using that pickup truck to then come and pick up all of my books, so...

 

Gina Davis

There you go!

 

Molly Ness

To save my lower back.

 

Gina Davis

Yeah.

 

Molly Ness

So, talk to us a little bit about your impact. Obviously, you have so many projects going on and when I was researching you guys, I took note of that tagline of helping foster kids just be kids. So, you've alluded to it, but I really want our listeners to understand that it's not just books. It’s everything from shoes and shoe cases to providing birthday parties and summer camp experiences. All of these experiences that make childhood what it is. Foster children are so often missing. And you guys are doing that work so holistically to provide that. Talk to us a little bit about your impact. 

 

Gina Davis

Yeah, so four essential items which would be shoes, school supplies- is a big one. Backpacks- really important all year round because kids enter school all year round. Toys during the holidays is our biggest one coming up right now. We've got 170,000 kiddos that- you know no matter what religion they are; they are expecting Santa to come or they're expecting that experience, or they’ve never thought that they were good enough to participate. So, that's really important to all of us. And clothing and baby items. There’s newborns that come into take care at a moment's notice every single day. And as parents usually prepare for so long for a newborn to come in, so they have a newborn on your doorstep with nothing- you know we try to fill those needs as well. So, over the years through individual donors, different companies hosting drives and also retailers donating bulk access inventory, we’ve distributed over 4 million essential items to foster youth which we’re really proud of. Our extracurricular access which funds the ability to do swim lessons or camp, join Little League, dance, music, computer coding- wherever their passion lies, or their interest lies has reached over 17,000 kiddos. And that obviously creates fun. It provides childhood but it also teaches life skills. It teaches self-confidence. It creates mentors which are really important. It creates friendships for a child who has had many friendships broken, that sense of belonging. And then it just teaches really important life skills like leadership- you know how to play as a team, how to work as a team. Endurance, practice, all of those things. So, we find and actually research shows that when they participate in extracurriculars, their school attendance increases, their grades increase, their overall graduation rates increase. So, we- we are really passionate about extracurriculars. And on that extracurricular side is that fun piece. We also work with teams to provide tickets to the fair or the sports team or the baseball team or movies. And we've actually- I think this summer alone have distributed 8,000 tickets to fairs, so there's been a lot of cotton candy. A lot of fair tickets this season which is really fun- right and its moments that you look back on fondly of childhood and they need those moments and those abilities to bond with their foster families as well. So, I think those moments of childhood are really really important. Our newest program is called Take Flight and it focus on youth aging out of care. And that's where kind of the big risks come- right, so when we hadn't gotten enough on making sure that they're going to succeed as adults, they're becoming homeless. So, we have kind of four key areas on that. Two of them are kind of prevention-wise. And one of them is education support. Increasing the education resources to look at school differently and provide that support, so they graduate on time and they have a higher chance of employability. It's life and job skills. Teaching them how to grocery shop and getting a driver's license and things that you think- that you just inherently know, but someone taught you. So, making sure that they're up to speed. And then housing solutions. Finding roofs, stable housing to put over their heads that is safe, that is stable. And helping them to kind of use the programs that are around them as well to access that. So we've reached 14,000 kids with that program which also includes celebrating their high school graduation and providing laptops to kind of help that digital divide that's being created by the classroom going digital- which is great, but if you don't have access to digital and you don't have a computer, you get left behind. So, we distribute thousands of laptops to that age. So altogether we hit the babies, the elementary-age kiddos, the older kids that are just about to take on adulthood. And we're really trying to focus on the key gaps that everywhere in the country has in foster care. And it works really well because we've got partners that are doing education support, but if their kids’ shoes are too small, they can't- they can't learn. And you've got kids that are doing behavioral therapies and their child is struggling and is not adapting well and oftentimes joining an extracurricular can give you that boost of confidence and that release of tension and stress to kind of get through those hurdles. So, when we all work together and we put all our programs together, we really believe that we can improve the level of care.

 

Molly Ness

Well it's so amazing to hear how- how you thought about every age and all of the services and support that each age entails. I'm also glad to hear you say that books are essential. Can we- it always comes back about books. I've dedicated my life to literacy education, so expand upon that a little bit. Why do you see books as essential? Why are they in your lumping of here are some of the sports and here is some of the skills that kids need to have? Why is reading so it's such an essential part of the work that you guys are doing across the nation?

Gina Davis

Yeah, well typically and stats actually show over and over again that most foster youth are behind. Their reading level is not one or two grades below, but many grades below the average reading level. Their test scores are twice as low as their peers. Changing school does not help any of that. They may not have been getting the educational support early on as well because you're coming from family trauma situations in that regard. So, they need to graduate high school. There's no one after that step for them. There's no family to rely on to create that safety net. They need to graduate. They need to find trade school or employable skills or college or something that will provide them the ability to be self-sufficient or they’re going to become homeless very quickly. So, we know- right and stats show over and over again how important books are to those success metrics, to graduation, to doing well in school. And if we can catch that early and we can make sure that those early readers have the opportunity to easy access to be able to read, to practice that skill, to get caught up- you know what I mean- it helps them down the line. I know that- you know- one of my kiddos is- has a hard time reading early on and we had to practice, but without that ability to provide new content and a fresh book and keep it interesting and fun, you're going to lose their interest. So, it's really important to make sure that they have those on hand and we really love it. We partner with a lot of organizations that create stores where they can come and pick out items of their own so that they can find book-wise or shoe-wise or school supplies-wise what's of interest to them and not shove a book down their throat, but have them find what’s interesting to them so that we can create life-long readers. People that read are more successful. That's usually the stat. And then beyond foster- beyond just the education piece which we touched on earlier is that ability to escape into a book. These kiddos’ life are stressful. They face a lot of trauma. They might not be ready to talk very much to their foster family, especially when they come into a home so to be able to kind of give them a way to relax and de-stress and kind of escape into a book is therapeutic.

 

Molly Ness

I love that idea that you sort of set up these pseudo shopping experiences for them. We are speaking in September. Most families have just gone to big box retailers and done the back to school shopping and if you're a kid in the foster system, that is not necessarily an experience that you've had or an experience that brings a warm, fuzzy, emotional feeling or excitement. So, by giving kids the choice and if that is the choice of a lunch box or the choice of sneakers that you’re choosing or the choice of a book- that validates who they are as individuals. They must feel like they're getting a little bit more of the control that they must feel like they so often lose in the foster care system.

 

Gina Davis

Yeah for sure. We also have- this past summer we did two book fairs with our Mattress Firm Partners where actually kiddos came and they got their backpacks for the new school year. And there was fun and games and food and cotton candy. And they also got to pick out books and bookmarks and kind of those key essentials. And then we also did that with our back-to-school bash with Bearpaw shoes where it was a festival of back-to-school. And you got shoes and backpacks and school supplies and there were superheroes there. Those book- those book sections, those bookstores that they got to come to swarmed, swarmed with kids- you know. And they weren't just like grabbing a book and being like “oh yeah yeah.” No, they were looking for the book- right. They were looking for what pulled on their heart strings and what they wanted to read, and they were- you know so excited to read and some kids took one book and some kids took twelve. And the ones with twelve, you should have seen their smiles- like huge- just like can't wait to open this book. So, these kiddos are just so appreciative of everything that's given to them and the ability to know that beyond just being given this item, that somebody thought of them to make sure that they had what they need. That’s really important to these kids- to know that they matter and that our community support makes that difference.

 

Molly Ness

I also think that- in our conversation, we focus so much on how the kids benefit from all of these experiences and you're supporting the children themselves. And certainly not to do- not to underestimate that, but my hunch is also that if you are a parent or a caregiver who is taking a foster child into your home, that is a stressful experience as well. And so by providing these services, you are supporting them in their work as serving as a caregiver and the more we can do to support those people who are doing such hard work, the more we start to create healthy families and healthy units and society all benefits when we all come together to support not only the children but the family structure as well.

 

Gina Davis

That's definitely true. And especially since we don't have enough foster parents and the retention rate of foster parents is really low, they fall out. It's a stressful job and it's easy for us to say, “well why don't you just provide this to the child? Why don't you just take them school supply shopping? Even if the stipend didn't meet, why don't you just make sure they had what they had.” That's very easy to say when you're picturing one child. That might be their 20th child that year and it is very hard on as- you know a single income, or you know even just a middle-income to provide everything a child needs 20 times. I mean just think about what you spend on back-to-school and then quadruple that because they don't have anything. Not socks or underwear, PJs, or anything so, that burden is a lot. And that can create guilt of not being able to provide enough for these kids. We, with these items know and hear over how much stress that takes off that parent and how they can then use those available resources towards the other things that aren't being met. And so, if we can help stretch that, if we can help unburden those families as much as possible because there's some amazing foster parents out there that are really in it for the good reasons. They are in it for kids. And we've met parents that have had 150 kids in their home. And these- those moments are not always happy. These kids are coming in afraid and that is not just like a happy welcome to my home moments for them. So these parents are really going- really working hard for these kids and are important to these kids, but they're also important to- I would say our country and our community because they are helping these kids become adults and the less social services we use in the future by making sure that they get the childhood they deserve, the better for all of us.

 

Molly Ness

And the more that we take care of the constantly growing checklist that every parent or caregiver feels in terms of providing food and clothing and school supplies and all of those little things. If we can take care of those concrete needs then we free up the emotional time and space and energy to focus on raising healthy, emotionally solid kids...

 

Gina Davis

For sure.

 

Molly Ness

It’s easy to provide the shoes. It's harder to be the parent or the caregiver that wipes away the tears and helps with the nightmares and all of the- faces all of the struggles and the challenges that come...

 

Gina Davis

And that's also just one piece that's also important, it's also about timing. The child is coming into care sometimes with 10-15 minutes notice and maybe an hour's notice while you're at work. The first thing- the only thing they should be doing is helping that child adjust, helping that child feel comfortable and welcome. The thing that they probably most have to do is race to Target, race to Walmart, get pajamas, get clothing. Little kids are sometimes coming in diapers. They have no diapers or formula or anything and these rapid shopping sprees which kind of add to the chaos, if we can just make sure that they these items on hand, it makes the whole process so much more comfortable, less traumatic, and allows them to focus on the well-being of the child.

 

Molly Ness

Well I know listeners out there are going to want to find out more about how they can help and you know certainly, my next phone call will be to Mattress Firm to deliver some of these thousands of books that I'm tripping on as I try to get out the door every morning. So thank you for sharing that and we will direct listeners of course to my webpage, endbookdeserts.com to find out more about Ticket to Dream. As we wrap up, I want to ask you the question that I ask every listener- I'm sorry, every guest on this podcast. Knowing that overcoming book deserts and creating a place where book access and equity and reading is a part of our- the fabric of our families and of our cultures, I always ask people to think back to a book that really shaped them as a person and as a reader. It can be a book from your past or present, but what is that one book that really sticks with you and that you still think about and are grateful to have read?

 

Gina Davis

So, I would say and one, I'm a very big reader. I read constantly, so I when I knew this question was coming, I was like, “oh my God I don't know how to pick one book?” But if I actually look back, I actually think my first real book is that one which was Charlotte's Web. And it was huge. For my child eyes, it was huge- right. It was like this giant book that only a really great reader can read beyond you know- the smaller books that you were looking at that age. And I remember teachers and people telling me that book is too big for. You’re not ready for that book yet. But thinking like I can read this book. I want to read this book. It looks like my yard. There was a farm on it. There was a pig and a girl that had hair like mine. And I wanted to read it and I powered through it. And realistically, I think I only understood about 20% of it and I read it again later, but it's that- I think it's that, I kind of hold that to myself of only you can decide what you're ready for. And no one can tell you what you're capable of. You just have to work at it.

 

Molly Ness

And obviously that experience that you had deciding that I'm going to ignore what people say that I'm not ready for this book and I’m identifying myself as a reader is a skill that we want to embrace and support and scaffold for our- the children in our foster care system today. 

 

Gina Davis

For sure.

 

Molly Ness

Thank you so much for all of the work that you do on behalf of Ticket to Dream and the foster children in the foster system today. We’ll look forward to following you more in the future and hearing about the success as you work with children all across this country.

 

Gina Davis

Thank you very much.

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