The secondhand flute in the Craigslist ad sounded perfect.
The seller promised an instrument that had been “lovingly taken care of” by a student who no longer used it. And, at $80, it was well within Julie Ledy’s price range.
Ledy doesn’t know the name of the girl she bought the flute for, but she knows the child’s desire — to join the middle school band.
“She’s 12 and her social worker says she has natural musical ability,” said Ledy. “A flute is one of those everyday things that many of us take for granted that we can give our kids, but it’s out of reach for her.”
Last year, Ledy founded a new nonprofit called Adoption Is Love out of her Roseville home. Its mission is to grant wishes for the growing number of Minnesota children who are in foster care or are waiting to be adopted. Ledy’s goal is to offer them a unique gift, or a special activity or experience — no strings attached.
“Foster families do the best they can but they’re not always able to provide something special for the kids. Our fund is able to do a little extra for these kids so they realize there are people in our community who care,” Ledy said. “These are children who don’t have a lot of control over their lives — they’re not in a position to even say where they want to live. So we stress that we let them pick what they want.”
An adoptive mother herself, Ledy, 52, pivoted from her career as a residential real estate agent to work in adoption services. She started an agency that consults with prospective adoptive parents to help guide them through the process. With her daughter, she owns Loving Adoption Profiles to help couples hoping to adopt craft their appeal to birth mothers.
Adoption Is Love grew out of her experiences. Now she spends her days reading wishes submitted by child welfare workers who work one-on-one with children, and working to make them a reality.
So far, Adoption Is Love has granted about 50 wishes. Capped at $350 each, the gifts are modest — no whirlwind flights to Disney World. And most of what the children have asked for is modest, as well: a pair of shoes, swim lessons, an American Girl doll, tickets to a sporting event.
”We had two siblings who wanted bunk beds,” Ledy said. “We’re sending a foster family in northwestern Minnesota to a monster truck rally in Grand Forks. And there was a little girl who was removed from her home and couldn’t take her bike with her. We were able to find a bike just like the one she had to leave behind.”
The number of Minnesota children who are eligible for Adoption Is Love grants is growing. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, almost 15,000 children experienced out-of-home placements in 2016. The number of Minnesota children in foster care increased by 51 percent between 2013 and 2016.
The department links that hike to the rise in parental drug and alcohol abuse, now the most frequent reason children are removed from their homes.
“We have a greater volume of kids in care. They’re coming in younger and staying longer,” said Traci La Liberte, executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota. “Every one of the kids in the child welfare system has experienced trauma.”
La Liberte believes that small gestures, like the ones Adoption Is Love can provide, are meaningful to the children who receive them.
“What kids value may seem like nothing to the rest of us,” she said. “Think about something special you’ve done for your kids, or that someone did for you. Now imagine never having that. Or imagine having that in your family, and then losing it.
“These wishes can support their development and well-being while they await reunification or placement with a different family.”
A bid for normalcy
When Ledy started the Adoption Is Love effort in 2017, she and her family funded it themselves, motivated by their Christian faith. Although it’s still a one-woman operation, Ledy has connected with community service clubs, civic groups and individual donors who have contributed cash.
She’s also lined up small businesses that have agreed to put out donation collection boxes for the fund and match customer donations in May, which is National Foster Care Month. Some of the 25 participating merchants include the three Bentley’s Pet Stuff stores, Blooma Yoga, Healing InSight Acupuncture, the Red Balloon in St. Paul and the Gumball Boutique consignment shop in northeast Minneapolis.
Molly Pittman, 61, a recently retired HR professional, made a donation to send two foster children and their foster parents to see the Harlem Globetrotters.
“I’ve known a number of foster kids in my life who are in this position through no fault of their own,” said Pittman, of Eden Prairie. “When I heard Julie talking about giving back to the foster families, giving kids a positive experience, I wanted to be involved. I’m in a position where I could do a little something for them.”
Alicia, a 17-year-old high school senior, asked Adoption Is Love for her senior pictures.
“I go to an alternative high school that doesn’t offer things like this,” Alicia explained in an e-mail. “I want [pictures] so I can give them to my favorite teachers, [county and social] workers and friends.”
Senior photos are a rite of passage for many high school kids, but it wasn’t in the budget for Alicia. Since her parents’ rights were terminated and she entered the foster system three years ago, the cost of her care has been covered by Hennepin County, with little left for nonessentials.
“Alicia wants that normalcy, that high school experience you see on TV, that she’s not going to get,” said Kathy Clark, the social worker assigned to Alicia through Lutheran Social Service/Children’s Home Society of Minnesota.
Planning for fun
Clark submitted her requisition to the Adoption Is Love fund. Ledy not only accepted it, but also worked her contacts to connect Alicia with a professional makeup artist, a portrait photographer and the owner of studio space, all of whom donated their services to make her wish a reality.
“Alicia is very girly and she loved being pampered; getting false eyelashes was her favorite part,” said Clark, who accompanied Alicia on the big day. “She seems reserved or shy, but in front of the camera, she was radiating confidence. It was beautiful to see her feeling so beautiful.”
Ledy has already purchased tickets to the Taylor Swift concerts, knowing some deserving teen will be thrilled to attend, and has committed to buying 200 tickets for a summertime St. Paul Saints baseball game.
But she’s not working on her own. In the year that she’s been in operation, she’s found many businesses that are eager to pitch in with a donation once she explains that she’s trying to fulfill a simple wish.
“People want to get in on it,” she said.
And that makes her job easier.
“It’s so meaningful to know that at the end of the day, there is a child out there who sees that someone is thinking of them,” she said. “It’s so much fun to make it happen.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.