Andrew Scheiner/Daily Journal
Reshmina Prasad, right, and her mom Carrie Hollenberg.
Twenty-three-year-old Reshmina Prasad doesn’t look like her mom, Carrie Hollenberg.
It’s not just complexion or hair color, the two women are physically different. Love and support, however, doesn’t come from sharing physical characteristics or even being related. Sometimes it’s a gift one person gives another. So is the case for Prasad and Hollenberg. Prasad, a former foster child, found a home and family with Hollenberg in Menlo Park.
Foster children are often invisible locally. The children are enrolled in public schools but the forms don’t have a box to check denoting a child is in foster care. A little extra support for these children can go a long way. That’s the focus of "A Night for Abigail,” held Wednesday night. Prasad, along with other former foster children, will discuss what it’s like to be in foster care. Participants will also learn how they can help these local children.
"Parents understand [foster children] are in the schools, but don’t know how they can help,” said event co-coordinator Charlene Margot.
Those wanting to help can volunteer in a variety of capacities, donate money or even help by spreading the word of needs to others.
Carrie DuBois, co- coordinator and trustee on the San Carlos Elementary School Board, came up with the idea for such an informational night a number of years ago when she met a little girl named Abigail who needed a home. Abigail was a young girl. DuBois quickly learned finding homes and meeting the needs of little ones is not nearly as difficult as helping older children.
"A Night for Abigail” was named for the little girl in hopes of shining light on opportunities to help local youth, DuBois explained. The event isn’t a fundraiser, although donations to local groups like CASA of San Mateo County, Court Appointed Special Advocates for children, are appreciated. Instead, the women simply want parents and educators to learn how a little bit of care and understanding can help one child be more successful.
Prasad, for example, moved to the United States with her mother from Fiji when she was about 10. Her abusive past continued in the states. At 15, Prasad was sent back to Fiji. She was told the move was temporary but soon learned her family had not planned to bring her back. Prasad begged her grandmother to pay for the ticket, which she did.
Prasad thought she would be met by her mom at the airport. Instead, she was alone. Phone calls helped Prasad, who at the time still knew little English, realize that she was at an international airport terminal with nowhere to go. Police officers at the airport, with the help of an employee who translated, involved child protective services.
After staying at a transition home, Prasad was placed in a foster home and re-enrolled at South San Francisco High School. She was happy to be back, but found herself withdrawing. Her first foster mom kept her from extracurricular activities or even visiting a nearby park. Prasad had a number of social workers, changing regularly for some period of time. When she got a stable social worker, he changed her situation quickly by getting Prasad, as well as another girl, out of the house. It was at her second placement where Prasad was taught more about being independent — things like taking the bus and basic life skills. It wasn’t an overly loving environment for Prasad, but a safe learning environment that truly prepared her for life after turning 18.
It was after leaving foster care and starting to work with the California Youth Connection, a state group of foster youth advocating for foster youth, that she met Hollenberg.
Hollenberg offered support, never judged Prasad and, when needed, offered her a place not only in her home but as part of her family. Today, Prasad is protective of Hollenberg, who she calls her mom. She lights up when discussing what it means to be missed when skipping family events or to have a person who genuinely cares about her life.
"One person can change a youth’s life,” said Prasad. "My mom right now, Carrie, she’s my everything. She’s the greatest person to me. She’s given me so much.”
Prasad was thankful for many people who helped her in different ways. An English second language teacher, for example, always offered to listen when Prasad was overcome with emotions. Her social worker Larry, who was convinced Prasad was too skinny, would pick her up after school and take her to eat. Those small gestures mean the world to Prasad.
She’s since become a citizen and gone back to school — moves she attributed to the support of Hollenberg.
Statistically, Prasad’s story of finding success with support isn’t unique.
About 70 percent of foster youth express a desire to complete college. But without needed support, about 50 percent are held back in school, 46 percent don’t complete high school and less than 10 percent enroll in college, according to a 2003 study out of Washington, D.C.
A Night for Abigail will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16 at the Menlo-Atherton High School Center for the Performing Arts, 555 Middlefield Road in Atherton. For more information visit www.anightforabigail.org. To learn more about ways to help local foster youth visit http://www.helponechild.org/ or www.casaofsanmateo.org.
Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.