An eight year old named Alan sat under a lamppost in Wallace Park near Chapman Elementary after school. He sat there every afternoon, long after the last teacher had gone home.
“Are your parents picking you up?” his teacher would ask.
“Yes, my mom is coming,” Alan always replied.
But Alan’s mom didn’t always come. He spent many nights outside, alone. The teacher involved social services, and she also asked her daughter, a young mother, to consider fostering Alan.
When Alan arrived at her daughter’s door a few days later, he brought his belongings in a tattered paper bag. All Alan had was two pairs of socks and some shorts.
The next day the daughter, Alan’s new foster mother, took him shopping. It seemed to be his first ever trip to a clothing store. Alan’s eyes widened with excitement. He picked out a new pair of shoes, jeans, and underwear. He savored cutting off the tags all by himself.
At school, Alan’s teacher noticed an immediate difference. He was happier, a little more confident, sat a little taller. She also observed a change in his classmates. Usually they ignored Alan. This day, one of them noticed him.
“Cool shoes,” he said.
Alan is a real person. His teacher, Lorraine Drougas, taught in Portland Public Schools for 25 years and saw her share of sorrowful stories. Alan’s is typical for foster children. When they enter the state system or get moved from one foster home to another, it often happens abruptly. Their few possessions usually fit into a grocery sack.
Lorraine believed every child has a gift, no matter how bleak his or her situation. When she connected Alan and her daughter, Rhonda Meadows, Lorraine couldn’t know that one of Alan’s gifts would change the course of Rhonda’s life. Haunted by the memory of Alan on her doorstep with his tattered paper bag, Rhonda became a tireless advocate for foster children.
In 2011, when Oregon was suffering the effects of a drawn-out recession, clothing vouchers for foster families all but disappeared. Rhonda gathered together a few likeminded friends and shared with them her vision: to create a welcoming place where foster youth could shop for free clothes, shoes, and accessories. She wanted all the youth under state supervision to be able to start school in the fall with a new outfit.
Rhonda and her friends began gathering donations and searching for a space in which to launch what she called Project Lemonade.
In August, 2012, Project Lemonade opened in a donated space in the Pearl. In three weeks over 1,300 foster youth shopped. Rhonda and the small army of volunteers who operated the shop couldn’t know what circumstances brought those children through their doors. But they did know that when each one of those 1,300 children left, they felt cared for and respected. They, like Alan, could sit a little taller in class.
The event was successful enough that Rhonda and her friends turned Project Lemonade into an official non-profit organization. In August 2013, 1,600 foster youth were served. Project Lemonade will continue to expand and grow, building confidence in as many foster youth as it can.
It’s Alan’s gift.