This past weekend, the nation celebrated the moms in our lives. We at the R.J. Leonard Foundation are honored to know a large number of wonderful mothers, including many of our amazing Fellows, Mentors, Board Members, staff and community partners. We were thrilled to celebrate them.
However, in recognizing moms we must also remember to see them for who they truly are and who they have had to be this past year. The COVID-19 pandemic has weighed heavily on mothers and will continue to do so even as we navigate the hopeful end. It has stretched mothers to their limits in terms of time, exhaustion, stress and mental health. In short, moms are not okay.
So, as the week after Mother’s Day stretches on and in the weeks that follow, we encourage you to reach out to the moms in your life, not with flowers and a card but with - in the words of said moms - your listening ears on. Ask them how they are, ask them how you can help, and ask them to be honest.
We’ll be doing that at the Foundation, because without RJLF’s moms, whether they are Fellows, Mentors, Board Members, staff or community partners, we would be so much less.
Young people in foster care often have no choice but to pack their belongings in a few trash bags as they are moved from their parent/guardian’s home to a placement - or as they are moved from one placement to the next. This image of children lugging their clothes in large Hefty bags to temporary homes has spawned efforts by organizations and individuals to provide duffel bags full of necessities for those in care.
However, having a bag more permanent than a trash bag is an answer for only the most visible problem. It is still a bag that a child must fill up when their time is up.
Youth in foster care are forced to become accustomed to living in the temporary as opposed to the permanent. Few, particularly those who are teenagers, are adopted or find homes that they can remain in long-term. As a result, youth in foster care often only have enough belongings to fit into a bag - trash or duffel - and that habit of minimalism by necessity can stick with them into adulthood.
May is National Foster Care Month. Let’s spend this month finding ways to help youth in foster care and the young adults who have aged out of the system put down roots, so that they can have the opportunity - and the stability - to fill more than a bag.
May 1 is National College Decision Day - the day when high school seniors throughout the country have to commit to a school for the fall semester. The decision is a challenging one, based not only on academics and cost but also on distance from home and from friends, environment, athletics and more. Seniors and their families have a lot to consider.
Seniors without family support have even more to consider. Imagine a soon-to-be or newly 18 year old preparing to graduate this June. If they are also preparing to age out of the foster care system, they must weigh where they will be able to live, how they will get to class, how they will afford tuition and all that comes with it largely on their own. If they delay college, returning to school as an adult learner, the pressures of Decision Day and the years that follow become even more complicated.
At the R.J. Leonard Foundation, we work to connect young adults aging out of the foster care system with mentors, as well as a network of support. We aim to give them the resources they need to help make huge choices a little less overwhelming and a lot more exciting, so that education and career are not just a dream but an attainable reality.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. It is an opportunity for us, as community members, to reflect on our responsibility to protect the children around us and to remind ourselves that even those who are not mandated reporters can and should report when necessary.
Permissive reporters - those not required by law to report child abuse - are even more important this year when so many children have stopped being seen in person by those who would typically identify and report child abuse. In 2018, for example, nearly 21% of child abuse and neglect referrals were made by educators. In 2020, nearly 93% of families with school-aged children engaged in some form of distance learning, meaning the face-to-face time that might allow an educator to recognize signs of abuse or neglect was either severely limited or non-existent.
We cannot expect professionals to be the only safety net for our children. It is everyone’s responsibility. If you suspect abuse or neglect, report it.
COVID-19 has led to high numbers of unemployment and underemployment, and as a result, many have faced financial hardship, struggling to keep up with bills including rent and utilities. Help has been offered in many forms from expanded and extended unemployment to rental assistance and a federal eviction moratorium.
But what happens when that help isn’t enough and/or doesn’t come soon enough?
Take for example Texas. According to NPR, the Texas state court system may stop enforcing the federal moratorium on evictions. If that happens, those behind on rent could face losing their homes. Though rental assistance is a part of the American Rescue Plan and was a part of past stimulus bills, those who have applied for it recently likely have not received funding. They may not even be sure the status of their application. That’s not enough to stop an eviction.
Back home in Pennsylvania, those in need have struggled with accessing their benefits and, even more often, accessing a person to help them determine where those benefits have gone. Unemployment funds have taken weeks to months to arrive, for instance - a delay that is more than costly when you’re relying on a payment for all manner of needs.
So yes, help has been given, but that help has faced its own obstacles. As we look to rebuild the economy and return to a semblance of normalcy, we must remember that those who have faced the greatest difficulties will still need assistance in the coming months.
6 of RJLF’s Fellows have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past year. That accounts for nearly half of the young adults we are currently serving. While all have recovered fully or appear to be recovering fully, their illnesses are a stark reminder of the risks many have been forced to take through the pandemic, particularly those in low-income and underserved communities.
For example, while millions have had the opportunity to work from home through 2020 and 2021, others - including a number of our Fellows - have gone in-person to work at grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, patient homes and group homes. Despite precautions, many have been exposed to COVID-19 at their jobs. However, an equal number have been exposed at home through partners, roommates and/or their children’s caretakers. Why? Because when you’re:
For many of us, the risks we’ve taken through the pandemic have been largely optional - should we see a loved one, go to a playground or pop into the store instead of ordering curbside pick up? But for so many more, the risks have been mandatory and constant, and the results of that have too often been an illness with an unpredictable outcome.
COVID-19 has highlighted the value and the importance of essential workers, and it has broadened our understanding of what “essential” means in the workforce. However, still and too often, social workers, who are key frontline workers, are forgotten from the conversation and recognition.
What that lapse leaves out are:
March is Social Work Month. Take the time to thank these essential workers for all that they have done and will do through the pandemic and in its aftermath.
This Women’s History Month, we wanted to spotlight a community partner that has had a profound impact on our Fellows, as well as many others in need throughout Bucks and surrounding counties. The Vine at Doylestown United Methodist Church is a women-led organization that, through donations, helps to provide food, clothing and other goods to underserved communities, families and individuals. To distribute, the Vine partners with programs, like RJLF, throughout the area and works to meet a wide range of needs as they arise.
Though we have been linked with the Vine for some time now, it has been through the pandemic that we have seen just how much they can and want to do. When the COVID-19 lockdowns began, the Vine put together food for families who had lost income or who saw an increased strain on the grocery budget due to kids being home all the time. In August, they filled school supply lists (including hand sanitizer, wipes and masks), and at Thanksgiving they stuffed cars full of holiday meals plus bagfuls of extras. In between and since, they have helped Fellows gather clothes for interviews and new jobs, they have sent gift cards and much, much more. Most recently, they put out a call to help one of our Fellows fill the Amazon wishlist she made in preparation for her new baby.
We are constantly in awe and overwhelmed with gratitude for the hard work and generosity of the Vine. Thank you to the Vine and especially to Liz, Becky and Lynlee. You are women we could not be more proud to know.
It has been one year since we reached out to our Fellows, Mentors and Board Members cancelling a March 15th workshop. At the time, we thought this would be a temporary blip on the calendar. We were discussing an April fundraising event and brainstorming May dates for the in-person workshop to be rescheduled.
On this same day, one year ago, Governor Wolf issued social distancing guidelines for our counties and urged nonessential businesses to close. Just 11 days later, he issued stay-at-home orders. Those orders remained in place until June 5 when we entered the yellow phase of reopening and June 26 when we entered the green phase.
Since March 12, 2020, COVID-19 has had a profound impact on our communities. Bucks County has had 42,051 confirmed cases and 1,150 deaths, while Montgomery County reports 55,716 confirmed cases and 1,572 deaths. Within RJLF, at least three of our Fellows have tested positive for COVID-19. Many of us have lost loved ones. And we miss each other.
However also since March 12, 2020, we have again and again been reminded of the strength, resilience and dedication of our RJLF Fellows, their children, our Mentors and Board Members, and our Community Partners.
We cannot accurately predict how much longer our society will remain as it is. We cannot predict what “normal” will look like when we return to it. What we do know is that we are grateful to be in this unknown with you and better for having had the RJLF community through this pandemic.
According to Vice President Kamala Harris, approximately 2.5 million women have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic one year ago. They have been laid off and furloughed. Their businesses have been shuttered. And/or their families’ needs have necessitated a step away.
We don’t yet know if this loss will be permanent or even how long-term. It is likely that a portion of the 2.5 million will remain out of the workforce for some time, potentially choosing to remain at home if able or facing the loss of an industry/company/position. No matter the duration, we do know that fewer women in the workforce isn’t a good thing.
Women are proven to have a positive impact on their places of employment, increasing collaboration and productivity, boosting morale among employees and improving recruitment and retention for the company.
This Women’s History Month (and beyond), we must remind ourselves of the importance of having women in the workforce and strive to help the women who have been pushed out due to the pandemic, as well as those still working, to find their place and voice within the workforce, to find the balance they want between work and family, and to recognize the assets they are to our society.