Local group spreading holiday cheer to Georgia children in foster care

St. Vincent de Paul relies on volunteers to help it distribute gifts to about 7,000 foster children in Georgia. (Courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul)

The holidays can be a lonely time of year for kids in foster care. But one local organization is trying to make the holidays brighter for many of them. St. Vincent de Paul organizes a statewide project that delivers holiday gifts to kids in Georgia’s foster care system. Atlanta-based consumer advocate Clark Howard started the program more than 30 years ago.

“As a rule, we have about 7,500 volunteers a year,” says St. Vincent de Paul’s Chief Operating Officer Darrell Hooker. “About 2,500 of those are our core volunteers…and then we have what we call a casual volunteer.”

On a recent Friday, more than a dozen volunteers unloaded gifts like bikes, dolls, books, and scooters in a giant East Point warehouse.

“It’s a process,” Hooker says.

A labor of love

Children in foster care have caseworkers, who ask them for a “wish list” of gifts. The list goes to Georgia’s Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS), then to St. Vincent de Paul, Hooker says. The organization buys the gifts from Walmart, sometimes sending volunteers to shop, other times opting for shipping. Individuals can also donate presents.

“We fill those lists,” Hooker says. “We bag those toys up. So we take that wish list and put at least three toys in each bag.”

Then the caseworkers come to pick up the toys and distribute them to the kids.

“The holiday season is a very, very difficult time for children in foster care,” says Dr. John DeGarmo, a foster care expert who, with his wife, has fostered more than 60 children over the years.

“Christmas Day, a child’s going to wake up in a foster care home and recognize, ‘I’m not with my family,'” he says. “‘These are strangers to me.’ Despite all the abuse and neglect, a child may have experienced, many times they want to go back home because that’s their norm.”

DeGarmo says kids end up in foster homes for various reasons.

“…primarily due to neglect, or abuse of some kind, whether it’s physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, …and maybe the death of a family member, or maybe imprisonment, maybe the parents are incarcerated,” he says.

He says it’s important that kids don’t move from home to home, known as multiple displacements.

“Every time they do go from one home to the next… there’s more issues of attachment,” DeGarmo says. “There’s more issues of trust; they fall further and further behind in school.”

DeGarmo says the majority of children in foster care are, on average, 18 months behind academically. Additionally, he says, when a child transitions or ages out of the system, their chances of dropping out of high school, ending up homeless and being incarcerated all increase.

“For so many children, the system just repeats itself,” DeGarmo says. “Their children go into foster care. I have some children in my home who are third-generation foster care, which means that parents and grandparents were also in the system, and the system failed them.”

A need for reform?

In 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp championed and signed legislation to address some of the problems in Georgia’s foster care system. The bills raised the amount of the adoption tax credit, provided tuition and fee waivers for foster students at Georgia’s public colleges, and lowered the age a person is allowed to adopt a child from 25 years of age to 21.

“Placing our kids in safe and loving homes is not controversial, and I am thankful to the General Assembly for working closely with our office on these important reforms in a bipartisan fashion,” Kemp said at the time.

DeGarmo says those policies could help long term, but turnover at DFCS is always a challenge due to the nature of the work and relatively low pay. He says the state also needs more foster parents.

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation raised questions about Georgia’s foster care system, citing disorder and high staff turnover as possible barriers to responding to kids in crises. 

Meanwhile, volunteers are doing what they can to make the holidays a little happier for the kids in Georgia’s foster system.

“It gives you a really great feeling helping other people, and we’re giving back to Atlanta,” said Greg Silva, who volunteered at the warehouse Friday.

St. Vincent de Paul says it serves about 70% of the 11,000 kids in Georgia’s foster care system. It delivers gifts to all of the state’s 159 counties.