Do you remember all that you and your student had to do in preparation for their landmark move to campus– buying towels, toiletries, coffee makers, bedding, computers, etc.? While your student tried to meet their new roommate and make new friends, you helped with things that needed to be collected and transported, worrying and fretting about every conceivable need they might have during their stay away from home, and making sure that you were able to provide for all of these things so that they were not inconvenienced in any way.
Unfortunately, not every student attending UMass Amherst has the invaluable support of family. Students that come from our foster care system frequently face significant challenges and often do not have the resources needed to purchase even the smallest items.
In Fall 2016, the UMass Amherst Parents Association (UMAPA) Advisory Council, in collaboration with the Dean of Students Office and the Office of Parent Services (OPS), launched an effort aimed at trying to make the transition to college a little easier for foster youth attending the university as freshmen. The idea was first floated by UMAPA Advisory Council member and Chair of the Community Service and Outreach Sub-committee, Mike Burk. As a working professional in the child welfare field, Mike had seen too often, the seemingly insurmountable challenges and problems faced by youth in the foster care system, many of which seemed so easily resolvable with just a helping hand, or a little bit of caring by a kind soul. When he approached the Council with the suggestion that we should try to do something for this vulnerable student population, the members wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity to make a difference.
Word about the initiative was quickly spread via the campus’s OPS website, as well as the UMass Amherst Family-to-Family Facebook group. It was heartening to see the enthusiastic and encouraging response from other UMAPA members. Mike also reached out to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families with a connection finally made in October 2016. Key contacts were provided by DCF as well as suggestions for improving outreach.
The very first drive (Fall 2016) was one based on gift card donations to stores such as Target, JC Penney, Big Y, Stop and Shop, and Amazon. Fellow parents were encouraged to make contributions of any size, no matter the dollar value. It seemed so rewarding and fulfilling to know that as a UMass parent/family member, one was making a difference in another student’s life. With the collaboration of the Office of Parent Services and the Dean of Students Office, identified students received a welcome message inviting them to pick up their gift cards confidentially at the Dean of Students Office. When they did, they also had an opportunity to learn about support services available to them. OPS in partnership with the MicroChill company also provided each student with a UMass welcome mat for their residence hall room.
The inaugural drive raised $1,385 from 11 families. With these funds, we were able to provide an average of $200 in gift cards for seven incoming first-year students from foster care.
We are now looking forward to our second drive. So, come join us in this wonderful cause for the UMass Amherst family! We welcome your ideas, feedback, and full support as we work towards its launch. Please be on the lookout for additional information on this initiative in the coming weeks at the campus’s OPS website, as well as the UMass Amherst Family-to-Family Facebook group. If you have questions or ideas that you want to share, you can do so on the Facebook group or contacting Mike Burk at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Submitted by: Neena Verma, the mom of a current UMass Amherst Political Science and English double major, class of 2018. Neena works full time in the UMass President’s Office and is the current Co-Chair of the UMA Parents Advisory Council.