For the DukeEngage Seattle program we had to rank the community partners we wanted to work at. I was drawn to Amara because I have always heard so many terrible things about the foster care system. Take a minute to ask yourself what comes to mind when you think about the words “foster care.” Is it the stereotype of foster parents taking in kids for money? Is it the sentiment that children in foster care are problematic or troublesome? Is it the stories of abuse and neglect being rampant in foster families? These were all things I’ve heard some time or another, and I wanted to learn the truth behind foster care this summer.
I picked Amara then and there, going off only the organization’s website (shout-out to Marilee) as we didn’t learn what our actual projects would be until the last weeks of school. I will admit, I was a bit underwhelmed when I learned that my project would be combing through the organization’s old files, records, and tapes for stories in preparation for Amara’s 100th anniversary in 2021. My goal through DukeEngage was to directly affect the lives of the people I would be working with. Imagining a summer spent locked up in a windowless room reading old newspapers was not what I wanted to do.
I didn’t want to pass judgment so quickly, so I kept these doubts and concerns on the back of my mind as I landed in Seattle. Speaking with my program leader Charlotte and my community partner supervisor Amie in the days leading up to our arrival made me slightly more optimistic that I would still be able to contribute meaningfully. I knew what I got out of this summer would be based on what I put in.
My first day in Amara felt like a somewhat out-of-body experience. We had little time to adjust to our living situation in Seattle before starting work on our 3rd day there. I think the new environment and new faces played into this feeling that I was doing but not processing. What I remember most now is how surprised I was by how nice the space was, how amiable everyone who worked in the office was, and how well-run Amara was in preparing for our arrival. We had our own spacious desk spaces, with Amara folders and brochures laid out before us, and our work computers quickly set up. Another observation was that I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as charismatic as our supervisor Amie. She was so happy we were here to start this project the organization had been eagerly waiting to get off the ground. Her positive attitude was contagious, and I was even more motivated now to do the best I could for the project.
So with the other DukeEngage intern at Amara, Adair, we started educating ourselves on the history of foster care before then looking into Amara’s history. We were handed a stack of copies of news clippings made into a book over 20 years ago to celebrate Amara’s 75th anniversary. It was really fascinating seeing things we read about the history of foster care reflected in Amara’s history, but also to see how Amara was one of the first organization’s in the country to have transracial adoptions, single parents adoptions, and same-sex adoptions.
I saw then that Amara really had a history worth telling. In its 100 years, there are numerous stories of love, courage, and optimism. From talking to the social workers at Amara, I also learned more about the current state of foster care. Today’s issues such as the lack of families who want to foster African American children were voiced as early as the 50’s and led to the organization starting its Minority Adoption Project then. Likewise the many disabled children and older teens that struggle to find placement is an issue that persists, but Amara worked to solve it in the 70’s with it’s Adoption of Special Children program.
After going through a dozen boxes of old files, hundreds of newspapers from Amara’s inception in 1921, and even more photos of different children adopted or fostered through Amara, we organized everything into a neat computer software called NVivo. That was a first big step for us to then use the software’s search methods to identify tentative stories and relevant files, and a way to make sure that as the years pass and things inevitably get lost, the digital copies will continue to survive, ready for the next set of historians to parse through and add to.
I went into this summer wanting to learn the truth behind foster care, and this project was the perfect avenue for doing so. Whether I truly made an impact, I think we will have to see in the coming years as the project rolls out, but I am very hopeful that Amara’s centennial celebration will be an opportunity to raise awareness yet inspire hope. Every child has the right to a loving and supportive family, and I am very fortunate to have had that, and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would love to one day be a foster parent, but for now, I want to make others aware of the issues in foster care and how we can change the system for better.