While sitting under a balloon arch surrounded by colorfully wrapped birthday presents, 17-year-old Kathie Nguyen was beaming as she explained this was the first birthday in her lifetime that she actually enjoyed.
Nguyen, along with several other girls from the South King County area, received more than just birthday wishes at Celebrate 18!, a countywide party for girls aging out of the foster care system.
Hosted by Eileen & Callie’s Place, a Kent-based nonprofit organization, Celebrate 18! provided makeovers, new outfits, education and job resources, and more to the birthday girls on Saturday.
The overall idea is to build up the girls’ confidence and support them in the next stage of life after foster care, said Dr. Natalie Ellington, founder of Eileen & Callie’s Place.
“Every one of their stories is different,” Ellington said. “The only thing that’s the same is they’ve all been impacted by a system that’s been broken for a long time.”
Love was found in all the details of the Celebrate 18! event at the Auburn Event and Community Center. When searching for a new outfit, the birthday girls perused racks of shoes, clothes and jewelry designed to mimic a boutique shopping experience. Clothes were available in a broad range of sizes to accommodate all body types.
On-site representatives and resources included King County library cards, voter registration, information on continuing education and career networking.
“We wanted every single thing to say ‘we thought about you,’” Ellington said.
As Nguyen exited the dressing room area at the event to show Ellington her new outfit and heels, volunteers and other attendees cheered and applauded while she struck a few poses.
“I feel like I was actually loved and supported by others,” Nguyen said after the event. “It’s kind of overwhelming because I’ve never had this kind of care and love in my life … I love today.”
Nguyen, now living in a group home in Tacoma, attends high school in Federal Way and has lived in dozens of foster care homes around South King County. She has been in the foster care system since she was 13 years old, after a childhood of sexual abuse began at age 6.
The trauma from her childhood combined with mistreatment at group homes, such as at Iowa’s Clarinda Academy according to the Inlander in 2018, has led to difficulties with self-harming, she said.
Celebrate 18! proved to be the new beginning she needed, Nguyen said.
“I feel like this was a ‘Hey Kathie, new opportunity! Doors opening for you. Step in.’”
Aside from the generous gifts of the day, Nguyen’s favorite part was hearing the advice and personal experiences of five women who are foster care alumni themselves. Hearing these women offer guidance was one of her first experiences of motherly love.
“It helps to know I’m not alone.”
As the party concluded with dinner and birthday dessert, the event’s speakers offered advice they would give their younger selves.
Speakers included Jamerika Haynes, Ms. Evergreen State 2018 and founder of Clever Jam Communications; Barbara Rockey, Treehouse education specialist and Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors candidate; Lisa Barnes, Salvation Army captain and author; Kathy Ohrt, assistant manager of Foster Champs of Maple Valley nonprofit; and Latasha Eaddy Haynes, owner of Tacoma-based Ike and Tash Photography and Motion and youth program manager at Advancing Leadership.
Sometimes comparison leaves a lacking feeling, said Barnes, who lived in 30 to 40 foster care homes during her adolescence.
“We learn to measure ourselves up against others before we really know the value of the measuring stick,” she said. “We see other little girls with more bracelets or more dolls and we feel like their lives are better than ours …”
We are far more than the hurt that has ever happened to us, she told the birthday girls.
You are not alone in your overwhelming anxiety or crippling trauma or searing pain, you just know yours, Barnes said. While every feeling is valid, the bad experiences do not have to be yours forever.
The conversation then opened up for the birthday girls to ask questions about how to navigate life during and after foster care.
One birthday girl’s question brought many to tears.
“How do you let others love you?” she asked. “And how do you love yourself? I’ve never felt love so I don’t know how to let [people] in.”
Don’t hold people responsible if they didn’t do it, Barnes said.
Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to heal, said Rockey.
“Before I could say ‘I love you,’ I would tell people ‘I care for you,’” she said. “Give yourself permission to take your time.”
As a must of every birthday party, each girl blew out a candle on a decorated cupcake after the crowd sang “Happy Birthday.” Although the candle flames went out at the end of the night, the hope for these young girls blazes on.