COLUMBIA—A Midlands teenager has started a program aimed at toppling the barriers that might prevent people from becoming foster parents.
Ashleigh Smith, 17, is the founder of Ready to Love, a non-profit organization that collects money and supplies to help families prepare their homes to welcome children from South Carolina’s overburdened foster care system.
“To be a foster parent, you not only have to be ready economically, but you have to be ready to love these children because that is the main thing they have been missing,” Ashleigh said. “Many of these kids have been abused and neglected, and the best thing they can experience in their new foster home is for someone to just love them. I don’t want finances to be an issue for those who want to become foster families.”
South Carolina currently has a shortage of foster families. During the summer, the Department of Social Services estimated that 1,500 foster families are needed statewide.
Ashleigh has firsthand knowledge of the challenges these parents go through. Her mom and dad started fostering when she was in first grade, and she remembers they had to purchase a changing table and other baby supplies and make renovations to their house. Over the years, the Smiths cared for many children and eventually adopted Ashleigh’s younger brother and sister from the foster system. Currently, the family is caring for a 14-month-old.
Funds raised by Ready to Love help foster families purchase baby furniture, diapers, and other supplies that they need, plus fire alarms and items required to meet state safety standards for foster homes.
Ready to Love also partners with the Lexington County office of the Department of Social Services to provide “buddy book bags” for foster kids. Each bag is filled with toiletries, stuffed animals, crayons and coloring books, blankets and other items designed to relieve the stress kids face when they enter foster care.
Ashleigh also collects new and gently used items such as changing tables for foster parents who are taking in babies.
The teen receives a lot of support from church groups around the Midlands. Knights of Columbus Council 724 in Columbia recently raised money and donated stuffed animals for Ready to Love, and other groups are stepping up to collect baby furniture and other supplies. She said people interested in helping can also sign up to sponsor a foster family.
“Whether you get involved by donating crayons for a buddy bag or helping an entire family, you’re making a difference for these kids,” Ashleigh said.
To learn more, visit www.facebook.com/readytolovefoundation or call 803-357-1027.