[See original post at GivingCity Austin here]
Dena Dupuie of Austin wound her way through piles of trash filling the small mobile home. Though she’d been in many foster care homes, this was one of the worst.
“I was taken aback. I could hardly walk through the house,” she said. “You know why? Because they couldn’t afford $45 a month for trash pickup.”
Dena and half a dozen others were there as volunteers from Austin Angels, a nonprofit that offers foster children a consistent, caring presence. The group was delivering items to two sisters – *Maggie, 11, and Brooke, 10 – who are living in foster care with their grandmother.
Though she has a full-time job, grandma’s net income puts her in the lower income tier. On the flip side, her salary is high enough to disqualify her from public assistance.
Their situation is common. In Texas in 2014, more than 600,000 children were living with a grandparent (called kinship care), according to U.S. Census data. The state’s Child Protective Services took Maggie and Brooke from their parents’ home on discovering a meth-using mother, her abusive boyfriend and a father in prison after 17 arrests.
“Both girls have several behavioral diagnoses. They’ve spent their entire life in upheaval,” said Dena. “Meanwhile, at home, the septic tank is ready to break down, the roof needs repair, there are holes in walls and rats and bugs from the trash. Grandma is amazing, but their living conditions are awful.”
Dena knows what it takes to exist in such conditions, let alone rise above them.
Healing childhood scars
“I grew up in a really challenging household. My dad was alcoholic, a gambler, violent. And my mother had a full-time job. We were homeless twice,” she said.
Dena cleaned, cooked and looked after two younger siblings.
“All of us have brutal scars from our childhood. When you grow up running down the street as your dad is flinging beer bottles at you … I had some teachers who really loved on me, and that’s what helped me make it out.”
Determined to get an education, Dena asked every college recruiter who visited her school where they came from. When one said Phoenix, she signed up.
“I just wanted out,” she said. “Once, I couldn’t put food on the table. But I paid for it all myself, with a Pell grant and student loans.”
When she married Scott Dupuie, they decided to get into a profession where they could work and give back together. They sold the businesses each had built to form Hope Realty Texas, member of Stanberry & Associates, and began giving 10 percent of every commission to the client’s charity of choice.
They also decided to enter the world of foster care children to help others break the cycle as Dena had done.
Rising from despair
It’s a bleak one. Austin Angels puts the number of children in the foster care system nationally at 450,000. Former foster kids make up 50 percent of the homeless nationally and 40 percent in Austin.
It’s a cycle Dena wanted to help break. However, after the Dupuies had finished their training and were waiting for their first foster child, fate intervened.
“I woke up one morning and discovered a lump. I had breast cancer,” Dena said. “It was May, close to Mother’s Day, and I’d already had a miscarriage with a due date of May 8. I really wanted to be a mom, I was ready to foster, and then you throw cancer at me?” Dena said. “It was really hard.”
She couldn’t know that at the same time – May 8, to be exact – a baby was born to a couple who would ultimately lose her. When Brianna Marie was 12 months old, a babysitter shook her so violently that a traumatic brain injury was the result. A child who had just started to walk and talk was reduced to an infant who couldn’t even crawl.
Dena and Scott began fostering Brianna two months later. It would take 18 months to get Brianna walking again, but not nearly that long for her to capture their hearts. When a judge terminated her mother’s rights and her dad relinquished his, she officially became a Dupuie.
“She is so meant to be ours. Scott and I are just gaga over her,” Dena said. “She’s an empathetic, kind, loving girl. She’s already raised $10,000 for charity by herself!”
She’s had great role models. Besides donating a percentage of commissions, her parents go out of their way to help their business clients, such as finding autism specialists and support groups for families new to the city.
They also deliver Love Boxes on behalf of Austin Angels. In fact, Dena now heads up two groups of Love Box teams.
Delivering affection in a box
Self-confidence and self-esteem suffer in foster kids. To help them feel significant and cared about, Love Box volunteers commit to hand-delivering a few items for each child and foster parent – toys, groceries, school supplies – in a monthly Love Box, along with a handwritten note of encouragement.
Dena has met many foster children. But the two sisters living with their grandmother touched her deeply.
“Maggie and Brooke are like my daughters. I want them to get out like I did,” Dena said. “We’re mentoring them and teaching them the proper way to handle stuff. It’s just consistently showing up, being present to help them with their struggles and show our affection. Now, these girls tell me I’m like a mother to them.”
Dena challenged us to spread the word about Austin Angels.
“If you know someone in foster care, give Austin Angels a referral so we can make a difference in more foster kids’ lives. It can’t be left to the state alone. Having someone show up each month with a new Love Box gives these kids hope and a feeling of value and purpose.”
* Names changed to protect identities.