WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo --
In the State of Missouri there are nearly 13,000 kids who have been taken away from their families and displaced within the foster care system. Each year about 400 kids age out of the system, and more than half will end up homeless or incarcerated.
The Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Bomb Wing has started an initiative designed to enrich the lives of foster children throughout Missouri.
Operation BRACE, which derived its name from the founder of the foster care program, Charles Loring Brace, stands for Building a Road to Achievement through Community Engagement, with the mission of reaching all Missouri foster children in hopes of providing them opportunities to create a successful future.
“This initiative came out of local efforts to offer a few children in foster care opportunities to enlist in the Air Force,” said Col. Ken Eaves, 131 BW commander. “When we saw that 400 or more Missouri children age-out of the program every year, we knew we had an opportunity and responsibility to provide the foster youth with options for something bigger to help them in adulthood.”
The 131 BW is partnering with various organizations throughout the state. The Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Agency, Missouri Girls Town and Show Me Christian Youth Home have all been involved from the beginning of the efforts. Just last month, the CMFCAA held its annual transitions event to provide life skills training and mentoring classes to teens aging out of the program. Typically, the program would have been open to 10 foster youth. But, through partnerships also with local businesses and 131 BW contacts, doors were open to more than 45 foster youth across the central Missouri region.
Foster care is a system in which a minor has been placed into a ward, group home or private home of a state-certified caregiver, referred to as a “foster parent.” The placement of the child is normally arranged through the government or social service agency.
Recently, Eaves and his team met at the University of Central Missouri for a full day of discussion on how to implement a plan to engage, equip and enlist the state’s foster youth.
Operation BRACE will be instituted through a five-phase plan that spans through 2021. The first phase, beginning in October, will be a test trial within the central Missouri region. The first step in the process is to educate those within the foster care system on the opportunities the Missouri Guard has to offer.
Next year, the 131st plans on hosting a summer camp similar to the transitions event to teach foster kids valuable life skills that many fail to learn from the inconsistencies within their lives.
The summer camp will be designed to help educate youth on basic life skills to help them be a beneficial member of society. The life skills will vary from self-care and respect, cooking, employment, finances, housing, credit and debt, driving and transportation, physical health, and further education.
Operation BRACE is designed to identify high school-aged foster children as early as their freshman year, who could potentially serve in the Missouri National Guard. The Guard will provide these children with mentors to help prepare them for adulthood and give them the opportunity to join the military family.
“The majority of these youth have been dealt a bad hand at life,” Eaves said. “Some of them faced abuse or neglect from their families. And after conversations with one of our own Bomb Wing Airmen, we’ve seen that we can provide these teens the opportunity to be a part of our family. That’s who the Guard is… family.”
In the process of establishing the program, Eaves and his team visited Jefferson City 11 July, where they spoke with 240 foster youth and another 40 on 28 July, at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.
“Knowing your self-worth is extremely important,” said Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott, a 131 BW photojournalist. “In the Air National Guard, you’re surrounding yourself with individuals who are looking to get out in the community and give back. You’re surrounding yourself with people who are pursuing college degrees; with individuals who have overcome obstacles and understand the challenges of life. You're going to create friendships. Essentially, you're building your Guard family and then giving back to those new recruits to help them succeed as well.”
Elliott had the opportunity to share his story of how he bounced around the foster system for many years but managed to turn his life around after joining the Air National Guard.
“These kids will never have a normal childhood,” said Elliott. “They’ve had everything taken away from them without them ever doing anything wrong. I shared my story with them to show them there are opportunities available to create a better life for themselves, whether that be with the help of military or not. We all want to see these kids succeed.”