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Rising above the challenges of the pandemic

by Christine Galeone

Do you ever wonder how you can make a difference in your community? In these unprecedented times, it’s not unusual for people to feel disconnected and unaware of local needs. However, there are many ways that people can make their corner of the world a better place to live.

This new series will spotlight Blackstone Valley nonprofits – including the Rise Above Foundation, a Northbridge-based organization that brings joy and comfort to foster kids – and initiatives. They continuously brighten the area. But they need different kinds of support to continue to thrive.

In 2009, Sarah Baldiga, Wade Sulzman and the late Mercedes Ramirez-Newkirk – who were then social workers for the Massachusetts DCF – founded the Rise Above Foundation. They founded the nonprofit to give kids in foster care the same extracurricular opportunities enjoyed by most of their peers. Since they had seen the positive impact that providing these childhood experiences could have on the overall health of children, Rise Above has been making those life-enhancing experiences possible for kids throughout the state.

Those experiences normally include going to proms, participating in school sports, taking dance lessons, learning martial arts, going to summer camps and more. Because foster parents only receive a limited amount of money from the state to provide for the children’s basic human needs, participating in such confidence-building activities isn’t possible for many kids. So, when a request from a foster child (or the child’s foster parent, social worker, therapist, etc.) is made for funding for a specific activity, Rise Above does all it can to fulfill the request. 

Although most typical extracurricular activities have been cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for Rise Above’s help has actually increased. “We've received requests for, and have served, 950 Massachusetts youth in foster care – double the volume that we usually see,” Sarah Baldiga, Rise Above’s executive director said. “We've purchased more than $175,000 in bikes, laptops, basketball hoops, arts and crafts, tablets, and other items. Two of the most requested items have been laptops and tablets – we’ve provided 349 devices – and bikes, scooters, basketball hoops and other active toys; we’ve provided 208 youth with these items.”

Baldiga admitted that the pandemic-related challenges have been immense. But she said that she’s proud of her team – which includes two part time staff members and one full time staff member – for meeting the new needs so quickly. She said that seeing how the pandemic has affected kids in foster care has also been challenging. 

“Social distancing has torn away the network of supports – therapists, coaches, social workers, teachers, guidance counselors, psychiatrists – that youth in foster care depend on for stability,” Baldiga explained, noting that Rise Above remains committed to helping youth in foster care stay healthy, connected and able to succeed academically despite the pandemic. “No longer being able to have visits with biological family members, including siblings placed in other foster homes, is heartbreaking and will set back the healing process for children. And providing children who have experienced trauma with consistency and routine is crucial, and the COVID-19 pandemic is obviously disrupting any established routines.”

When asked how people could help Rise Above during the pandemic, Baldiga suggested several options. “With 50 requests pending, more coming in every day, and more than 10,000 kids in foster care in the state, the need for Rise Above’s support is still critical for youth and their foster families,” Baldiga said. “In addition to monetary support, we are in need of grocery gift cards to pass along to young adults who grew up in foster care and are living on their own, pursuing higher education or vocational goals. We’re also always looking for help spreading the word about our program and to educate the community about the needs of youth in foster care.”

By supporting Blackstone Valley nonprofits like Rise Above, in addition to checking with local houses of worship, libraries and schools for ways to help, people can make the Blackstone Valley a healthier, happier place. Everyone can make a positive difference in their communities – even without leaving their homes.

For more information, please visit the Rise Above website, www.weriseabove.org. If you would like to suggest a Blackstone Valley nonprofit or initiative for this series, please contact Christine at [email protected]