“How would you feel if someone handed you a large grocery bag and said you had to pack all you needed in it?” asks Diane Delafield, founder of the Under One Sky Village Foundation.
The Asheville-based nonprofit serves children in foster care and those who have been adopted. Constant disruption and dislocation are experiences nearly all of Under One Sky’s participants share, Delafield says.
Former foster child Brandon Nivens, who’s now 27, doesn’t have to imagine the scenario Delafield poses: It happened over and over again during the four years he was in foster care. During that period, he had 11 different placements, he says.
He recalls a day when he expected his foster mom to pick him up after school. Instead, his social worker met him, telling him he’d have to leave his school, his friends, his foster family, his room and everything familiar to him – again.
“Every time I moved, I lost all my connections,” he says. “I was 16 by the time I got adopted by my mom. By the time most kids are done with the system, having some kind of attachment anxiety is inevitable. Every attachment has been broken, so it’s easier to push people away than let them in.”
One constant in Nivens’ life during those four years was attending Under One Sky programs, which include year-round empowerment training and seasonal camps for children and teens in foster care. As an adult, he continues to be involved with the organization as a counselor, speaker and advocate for kids in foster care, alongside his work for a property management company.
A different kind of family
“I loved camp,” Nivens says. “It was like having a family and an escape from the life I had. Nothing horrific had happened to me, but we connect on a much deeper level when people around us are going through the same kinds of experiences.”
Under One Sky has served 500 children and teens since its beginnings in 1996. The kids see the same faces at camp and at long weekends, providing stable relationships in their changing lives, Delafield says. Under One Sky also strives to maintain a consistent staff. The organization employs three permanent staff members and 15 seasonal workers.
Camps and other programs take place in rented space at Lutheridge Camp and Conference Center in Arden and the West Campus of Black Mountain Home for Children.
“Some of these people are still in my life today, and I keep in touch with them,” Nivens says. “The campers became my family, my brothers and sisters.”
This past summer, Under One Sky hosted 42 campers.
Indy Srinath, another counselor, says she’s learned more from the kids at camp than she ever could teach them.
“The kids are incredible,” Srinath says. “The girls talk about the traumatic things they experienced, listen to each other, cry, and then one will say, ‘Enough of this! Let’s have a dance party!’ We dance and sing and shake it off. They shake it off so quickly. They have taught me how to make space for trauma and still enjoy life, and they’re my heroes.”
Delafield says her transition to nonprofit work from her previous corporate job can only be described as a calling. “I was working with counties across the state, developing multimedia recruitment campaigns to find adoptive families for older children,” she says. ”I interviewed literally hundreds of children and in 2004 started camp-based adoptive programs to find families for them.”
But the campers needed even more than a permanent family to heal all the ways they had been harmed by their experiences, Delafield says. Lacking the skills to bond with a new family, the campers needed opportunities to develop those capacities. Most of all, she explains, they needed one another as a sounding board for sharing experiences, hopes and fears.
North Carolina has about 10,500 children and teens in foster care, an increase of 25 percent since 2012. Most of these young people have experienced more than one kind of of trauma, including parental incarceration, parental opioid addiction and family separation resulting from immigration laws. Neglect remains the primary reason children enter the system. Less than half the children return to their families of origin.
Sadly, not all the kids feel homesick.
“If you’re someone who’s always felt unconditional love and a place to go home to, it’s hard to understand what the lack of that anchor is,” says Bess Newton, who joined Under One Sky as its new executive director in May. “If a child is homesick, it’s positive, because they’re longing for a love that they know and they have an attachment.”
Asked to give advice to foster parents, Nivens offers poignant counsel.
“If you only tell people one thing, tell them never to take a foster kid to the grocery store on the first night at a new place,” he says. “It’s too hard.” Since children in foster care rarely get to make their own choices, he explains, the number of options in such a stocked store can feel overwhelming.
Then again, when the child does express a preference, he says, it’s important to honor it if possible. He recounts a time when he craved Frosted Flakes, and his mom thought he ought to eat less sugar. She chose low-sugar Cheerios.
While it may seem like a small compromise, it felt huge to him as it triggered memories of all the other losses he had suffered and how little control he had over the circumstances of his own life.
“At Under One Sky, we’re trained to handle big feelings, dissociation and tough situations,” Srinath says.
In addition to the seasonal camps, the children and teens meet between camps for adventures together, such as waterfall hiking at DuPont State Forest and visiting a trampoline park. One favorite outing was a trip to the French Broad Chocolate Factory.
“We want to give them experiences to remind them what joy feels like,” Newton says. “When you’re in survival mode, it’s easy to forget joy.”
The Junior Journey program offers skill building and fun to children ages seven to 11, and the Journey program goes from 11 to 17. The program focuses on Buncombe, Henderson, Durham, Gaston, Lee, Rutherford, Union and Macon counties, but any past or present foster child in North Carolina can take part. Referrals can come from social workers, agencies, teachers or the children themselves.
“The Under One Sky experience teaches life coping skills,” says Newton, who adopted three children from foster care. “No matter what our background, we all need compassion and coping skills for transition. This program develops emotional resilience in children so they can grow up to be resilient adults.”
Teaching those skills to children who have experienced so much hardship and disruption requires special preparation.
“Every staff member has been trained in trauma-focused practices, to have understanding of what kids have experienced and why they react the way they do,” Delafield says. “We have very strict codes and in-depth policies.” The camper-to-staff ratio is four-to-one at night and two-to-one during the day, she says.
Mind the gap
Since Jan. 1, 2017, local children in foster care turning 18 have been eligible to continue receiving supportive services until they turn 21, thanks to the Foster Care 18 to 21 initiative passed by the N.C. General Assembly in 2015. To meet some of the needs of this group of young adults, Under One Sky created its Second Wind Transitional Program, which fills gaps left by the absence of family. Staff members take teens on campus visits, teach them to write resumes and connect them to work opportunities.
Nivens became a participant in Second Wind and later a counselor for the program. With Second Wind, he has also traveled around the state offering education on how to be a good social worker or guardian ad litem (a person who advocates for a child’s interests in court proceedings).
“Who better to teach than a young person who has been through it?” Delafield asks.
Nivens likes to play piano, and he enjoys being a karaoke DJ. With Delafield, he leads workshops to teach children in foster care how to find needed resources such as laptops and mentors so they can rise above the circumstances of their brief lives.
“Kids have dignity and don’t like handouts,” Nivens says. “We tell them that it’s time to get paid back for all the things that have happened to them. If you’re in foster care, your life wasn’t always so great. The system’s in place to help, and we teach how to use those resources to better yourself.”
While the mix of services and programs Under One Sky offers has shifted through the years in response to what the organization sees as unmet needs among foster children and foster and adoptive families, the hunt for funding is a constant.
About 30 percent of the organization’s funding comes from reimbursements for its programs, from county health and human services departments, while 70 percent is made up of donations, grants and corporate sponsorships.
Among other donations, one patron gave the program Sky Lodge, a vacation rental in Mars Hill. Proceeds from renting out the lodge for events, vacations and conferences support the organization’s work.
“We constantly need an influx of resources to keep our doors open,” Newton says. “Under One Sky relies upon community donations and volunteers, so that we can be there for the children who need us most.”
Delafield retired this spring, after she and the organization’s board of directors chose Newton as Under One Sky’s new executive director. She keeps in touch with many of the children in foster care she’s met through the years, and she’s happy to have been a foster mom to her son, Jesse, whom she adopted when he was 15.
“We let the kids be kids and hold that space for them,” Srinath says.