Have Sweet Case, will travel

Elexis Wildanger, right, hosted a party to decorate and stuff bags with toys, a blanket, and a hygiene kit for children entering foster care. - Stacey Rupolo

Foster care for children in Massachusetts is in crisis mode. About 8,600 kids need a home or just a safe place to rest their heads, even for a night or two. But according to published reports, there are fewer than 5,700 foster homes available to them statewide.

The crisis hasn’t hit the Island. In fact, the regional office of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Hyannis listed only two Island kids on their rolls in 2014, the last report available on the DCF website. The Times was unable to reach DCF officials for comment.

Oak Bluffs resident Elexis Wildanger doesn’t focus on the numbers. She focuses on the kids. Over the past 14 years of her foster-care service, Ms. Wildanger and her family have provided foster care for 45 kids, and have legally adopted one foster daughter. Children referred to Martha’s Vineyard come from the southern region of the DCF, which extends from Arlington and Brockton down into the southeastern part of the state.

She knows that the foster-care crisis does not often hit Island kids. “Ninety-five percent of the kids that need foster homes are from off-Island,” she said in a recent interview. “Kids here don’t go into the DCF system. Family and friends step up and take kids that need care.”

Ms. Wildanger is one of a handful of Island residents providing foster care, and she is taking action to raise awareness in an Island community noted for its helping hands.

Last year, Ms. Wildanger and friends made 10 “Sweet Cases,” little carry bags for kids entering foster homes. Last month, a larger volunteer group than last year’s had raised enough money to make and distribute 20 bags.

She said the idea came from Together We Rise (TWR), a California-based nonprofit that supports children in foster care. According to TWR, most children who enter foster care are given two trash bags to hold their belongings. In an effort to humanize the process of foster care and comfort the children, Sweet Cases gives a child a bag filled with toys and a blanket, and the bag can be used to carry their personal belongings.

Her plan is to do this annually, timed to the summer season, when more families can be involved. Last month about 20 people crowded into her living room and kitchen, decorating bright blue duffel bags with markers and gel pens. The bags were then filled with a teddy bear, a coloring book, crayons, a blanket, a hygiene kit, and a book called “Maybe Days” — the title comes from the fact that every day in foster care is a “maybe day” (“Maybe I’ll get adopted; maybe I’ll go home; maybe I’ll stay here.”)

Ms. Wildanger’s introduction to fostering children came from her godmother Shirley McCarthy, who lives nearby and has been fostering children since Elexis was a young girl. Ms. Wildanger resolved that as soon as she had her own family and the means to support foster children, she would continue her godmother’s work.

She described a flexible DCF system that allows foster homes to take kids for undetermined lengths of time with a goal of reuniting kids with birth families, and gives preference to foster families in adoption cases.

Wildanger’s family is on a list that DCF calls if children come in after hours or need an emergency placement: “In 14 years of doing this, I think I’ve had two [emergency] calls. It breaks my heart, because these kids go from home to home.” She has taken in a 6-week-old baby that had six placements, a new home every week.

“It’s awful,” she said, “and it’s scary, and it’s heartbreaking to give kids back, but this is something we need to do. The benefits outweigh the risk and the heartache, when you can look at what you’ve done for them in the year or the six weeks; you’ve had them out of situations where they never had arms around them or a clean diaper. I give them to their homes with tears in my eyes. We still FaceTime with one kid we had for a little over two years, and I’m close to his adoptive mom,” she said.”

“In July and August I get calls every Friday to take at least one, sometimes two, children. We need foster parents. I’ve been called more this year than any I remember,” she said.

Elexis remembers a robust foster-care community on the Island when her godmother was active in foster care. “We used to have really great time. There were at least 10 active foster families who would celebrate Christmas and have beach parties. I’m networking, trying to get that back together,” she said.

Ms. Wildanger has seen the heart of the Island at work. “I’ll put a message on Facebook saying I need clothes or something else,” she said, “and when I come home from work, there are things at my door. Awesome!

“DCF only needs three families to come to the Island and do training for foster care,” she continued. “We have one family now. If we can get two more or even one more family, I’m sure they’ll do it. It’s a job we can all do. If I can do it, anyone can. You don’t have to have to have a big, beautiful house, or be married. You just have to have a big heart,” she said.