Care and compassion Generosity People

Fostering hope even as Covid bites

The University of Otago Health Sciences Divisional Office are generous donors. From left: Sharanya Komahan, Eleisha Campbell, Molly White, Manon Knapen and Helen Henry.

Even as New Zealand’s lockdown to contain Covid-19 bites, newly-fostered children may have reason to smile.

As they leave home, often taking nothing, their distress may be lightened by receiving a backpack of clothes and essential hygiene items, topped with a personal touch such as a teddy or patchwork quilt.

Some kids have never had a toothbrush or have shared one. One teenage girl who’d never owned jeans was in tears when she received a pair.

Foster Hope is a national, entirely-volunteer run, charitable trust which organises these personalised backpacks for children going into emergency or long-term foster care.

“To a child who has nothing, to have new PJs and a blanket that is their own, is huge,” says the Otago/Southland Coordinator, Juanita Willems.

It’s about letting these kids know that someone cares…every single pack is made with love.”


Last year’s nationwide autumn lockdown meant considerably more backpacks were given, with 1800 distributed in her region alone during the financial year.

She says families who couldn’t cope were asking for help from the Ministry for Children, Oranga Tamariki (OT).

This year, just before the country suddenly went into lockdown late on August 17, Foster Hope Otago/Southland received lots of requests for packs.

One reason was that the trust has new partner agencies in Milton, so more children are included. One hundred and fifty Milton area youngsters were added to the Christmas present list.

After this lockdown began, Juanita urgently requested baby items, pyjamas and boys’ underwear.

“You only need six babies from Oamaru south, for us to suddenly need more nappies.”

As well as the demand increasing, lockdown means she can’t go out and buy supplies. However, people can shop online.

The response was swift: in less than 24 hours, more than $1000 was donated and nappies and baby powder arrived at her home, where she organises everything.

Underwear for teenage boys remains a need.

“People never want to buy teen boys’ undies!”

The other day a social worker rang, requiring a boy’s pack. Because Juanita couldn’t go out to buy clothes, her sons raided their wardrobe to assist.

Creating good memories

Some Kiwi children are fostered when their parents have died suddenly without a succession plan and others because their parents are in prison, addicted or abusive.

Kids may suffer ongoing harmful effects, she says.

“Some are really damaged and have had deprivation, starvation and lack of medical care.”

Juanita has first-hand experience of why some are fostered, being born into a family where there was physical abuse.

“I’m 43 and I still suffer the effects of that every day,” she says.

Because of injuries received before becoming a foster child, she’s been going progressively blind and is now totally blind.

“The message is that you may be a foster child, you may go into care, but it doesn’t end there. The effects of what people suffer before foster care can be life-changing and permanent.”

Juanita was fostered, then adopted when she was seven years-old, and emphasises that this care was loving and positive. However, horrific memories of life prior to that remain.

“Being able to help kids going into care now, I feel, will help turn those memories into good ones.”

Thanks to New Zealanders’ generosity and thousands of volunteer hours, Foster Hope supplies the backpacks via OT social workers, and organisations and homes that provide foster care.

The recipients range in age from premature babies to 19 years.

Families often have more than one child needing fostering. One grandma was preparing to care for five grandchildren and had beds but no bedding, so Juanita asked for help via Facebook.

“Within the hour, the stuff was starting to arrive, brand new.” One kind donor ordered all the bed sheet sets and another bought duvet inners.

Juanita says the majority of pack contents are donated by the public giving money or physical items.

Dedicated supporters Mosgiel Inner Wheel and Carole Gold handmake many toilet bags from repurposed material. Photo: Foster Hope

In Otago and Southland, BestStart regularly collects goods and the Otago Polytechnic and the University of Otago’s Cumberland College are long-term contributors.

“Lots of wee knitting groups, lots of Inner Wheels, the Lions, Rotary – they seem to be our regular supporters, as well as the public.”

Foster Hope is volunteer-run and a regional coordination role involves about 150 hours a month.

Volunteer numbers vary, and rise at Christmas when service groups wrap presents.

Generally, though, Juanita says of volunteer numbers, “It could be up to 20, it can be two. Covid time, it’s my family and myself!”

During the past financial year in Otago/Southland, the charity supplied about 800 Christmas presents and 40 starter-packs for teenagers leaving foster care.

Kids who entered care nine years ago, when she began volunteering, are now heading out on their own, perhaps fortified with hope.

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For further information:

About Foster Hope nationally and in Otago/Southland

Our 2018 Foster Hope story

About a foster mum


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