PROJECT

pillows

Seventeen

THE

As I began my family, I put my speaking on hold to focus on working, and raising my family. Later, as I began a photography business and started taking senior portraits, the feelings I experienced in high school began to surface. As I photographed seniors in their prom dresses, I felt a ping of sadness that I never got to experience prom. Taking photos of graduates in their cap and gown, I recalled being a statistical drop out, and not being able to complete high school when my peers did. I had long wanted to help foster kids in some way, and now I felt my heart calling me to do something.

Don’t get me wrong, there were GOOD foster homes that tried to make me a part of their family. They tried to give me love. I just didn’t feel I was worth it. I knew if I let my guard down that I would be rejected. Many foster children have the same feelings. We are dispensable. If we act out, we usually get kicked out. What is the point of trying to belong somewhere when you are one bad day away from loading up your garbage bag and riding off to a new placement with your social worker?

High school is hard enough for “normal” kids. Imagine being a foster kid. Most don’t have the money to do extra curricular activities, like cheerleading or football. Many just show up at school and try to stay lost in the shadows. Sometimes we pick the wrong friends because we need an escape. Many times we are scared to sign up for sports because we know no one will be in the stands cheering us on. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we have supportive foster parents who shell out their own money to
buy our uniforms so we can participate in school activities.

To this day, I still shy away from the camera. I admittedly wrestle often with my self-esteem and fear of rejection. These are things that will never totally disappear for me. Having a family of my own has helped me to see the value of being in pictures. I did have some photos growing up, but I lost them along the way. So taking photos is great, but I have to remind myself often to be in them, too.

As I grew into adulthood, I would share my story with others and I discovered that many of the hardships I overcame were things that people struggle with. I found that it was healing for me to find purpose in my story and each time I shared, there were people who were touched, or who could relate. Many times I have been told it was helpful to hear my experiences even by those who are not affiliated with foster care.

During the nearly 15 years I was in the foster care system, there were times, when I woke up, I did not know I would be ending my day in a different bed. I could never establish a sense of home or family.

I would not be accepted. Towards my sophomore year, I started to feel better about myself as I had an amazing foster family and I met a great group of friends. Finally, I started to feel accepted.

Unfortunately, the loss of my foster dad sent me into a spiral and I found myself moving yet again. After a couple more placements, I ended back at the place where my journey started, Hillcrest. It was there, as I was waiting for a home to take me in, that I wrote to someone in the phone book. Her name was Toby and she helped adoptees find their birth families. I poured my heart out in every word as I asked her to please find my mother for me. Less than 2 weeks later, I got the call that my mother was located and wanted to see me. I was 17 at the time. Eventually, I did get my reunion, and my grandfather ended up taking custody of me during the last few months before I turned 18. My story is much more intricate than this, but for the sake of time, I will share the basics and why my heart has called me to help foster youth who are getting ready to age out of the system.

The name Seventeen Pillows stems from my time in foster care. During my 14 year stay in foster care, I rested my head on 17 different pillows. My journey started a couple months shy of my 4th birthday when my mother drove me to Hillcrest Receiving Home in San Diego, California. She had me get out of her car and she drove away. I was found crying for my mother in the parking lot. That was the beginning of my foster care journey. I was moved from Hillcrest to a temporary foster home, then to a long term placement and later adopted.

After a couple of years, my adopted parents decided to return me to the system. From there, I moved to many foster and group homes. I had a hard time making and keeping friends. In high school, I ate lunch in the bathroom on many occasions because I was embarrassed and scared of interacting with my peers. I longed to be like the popular kids, and go to dances and have boyfriends. I knew I was different and I was so scared of rejection that I rarely tried establishing connections for fear that

The name Seventeen Pillows stems from my time in foster care. During my 14 year stay in foster care, I rested my head on 17 different pillows. My journey started a couple months shy of my 4th birthday when my mother drove me to Hillcrest Receiving Home in San Diego, California. She had me get out of her car and she drove away. I was found crying for my mother in the parking lot. That was the beginning of my foster care journey. I was moved from Hillcrest to a temporary foster home, then to a long term placement and later adopted.

After a couple of years, my adopted parents decided to return me to the system. From there, I moved to many foster and group homes. I had a hard time making and keeping friends. In high school, I ate lunch in the bathroom on many occasions because I was embarrassed and scared of interacting with my peers. I longed to be like the popular kids, and go to dances and have boyfriends. I knew I was different and I was so scared of rejection that I rarely tried establishing connections for fear that I would not be accepted. Towards my sophomore year, I started to feel better about myself as I had an amazing foster family and I met a great group of friends. Finally, I started to feel accepted. 

Unfortunately, the loss of my foster dad sent me into a spiral and I found myself moving yet again. After a couple more placements, I ended back at the place where my journey started, Hillcrest. It was there, as I was waiting for a home to take me in, that I wrote to someone in the phone book. Her name was Toby and she helped adoptees find their birth families. I poured my heart out in every word as I asked her to please find my mother for me. Less than 2 weeks later, I got the call that my mother was located and wanted to see me. I was 17 at the time. Eventually, I did get my reunion, and my grandfather ended up taking custody of me during the last few months before I turned 18. My story is much more intricate than this, but for the sake of time, I will share the basics and why my heart has called me to help foster youth who are getting ready to age out of the system.

Journey

my foster care

- Anne Frank -

And what your potential is!"

The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish!

"Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. 

love herself.

When I close my eyes and think of the gawky scared girl I used to be, trying to get through each day being as invisible as possible...
it breaks my heart.
Inside her was someone who wanted to see her worth, feel beautiful and most importantly,

The day I left Hillcrest Receiving Home at the age of 17. In the photo with me is Jana. She was a staff member at Hillcrest and still works with foster youth today.

This is currently a grass-roots effort and is being offered in and around Marathon County. My hope is to expand the project so that all foster youth can have these opportunities.

Seventeen Pillows Project was created to give foster youth attending high school experiences that most foster kids miss out on. It is created to help fund at-risk youth with experiences like sports, dances, extra-curricular activities, help connect them to serving their community, and offer support and encouragement when needed. Our main projects right now are donating high school senior photo sessions. The youth gets to set up a dream session which includes their choice of makeup and hair, or new clothes. They get a 2 hour session at locations they choose and once the session is done, they get a print package, an album, and a school yearbook. Upon graduating, they also receive a gift card. This all may seem like pretty normal stuff, but most foster youth miss out on these small things. By offering them these opportunities, it helps them see their value, raises their confidence and shows them that the community is here to help! 

High school seniors are at the cusp of adulthood. These are monumental times in their lives. Most are choosing colleges and making plans for their futures. Foster kids have so much more to think about. At the age of 18, most of them are considered aged out. When they graduate, the funds may stop and they can be forced into adulthood with little resources. Statistically speaking, most foster kids drop out of high school before their senior year. The ones that do stay rarely get to experience prom or homecoming. Senior pictures are the standard yearbook photo provided by the school. Most can’t afford to even buy a yearbook. Many of these kids do not even have photos of themselves growing up. If they are lucky enough to have some photos, most get lost in the shuffle between placements. High School is usually a very scary time in their lives, as their 18th birthday looms ahead, the uncertainty of their future can be overwhelming.

project?

seventeen pillows

What is the

- JOAN OLSON -
Foster Mom

love you.

and allow them to

love others

before you can

love yourself

you need to learn to

Be Amazing

Thank you to these businesses and members in our community for sponsoring Class of 2021 session and high school experiences through our Seventeen Pillows Project for at-risk youth in our community!

Currently, Seventeen Pillows Project is funded by me through my photography business, but over the past year I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak as a keynote speaker and I was able to donate the fee 100% to the project.

I am now seeking speaking opportunities to continue funding the project year after year. I have also been generously gifted sponsorships for some of my youth this year from Be Amazing, which promotes kindness in the community. I am hoping to continue to raise funds for this project to be able to sponsor high school youth as often as possible.

We are currently set up as an LLC and can take checks payable to Seventeen Pillows Project, however, I am not able to provide a tax deductible option as we are not yet set up as a charitable organization.

Photographers and vendors, please keep in mind that if you choose to donate, this will not be an opportunity to share images for advertising.

Most foster cases are very sensitive and the courts will not allow you to publicly share their faces. We may be able to tastefully share images that do not reveal identity. As I get this effort moving, I will be covering all bases with the proper authorities to be sure there are guidelines in place and communicated prior to any photo session. However, I will be sure to advertise your generosity and include links and information about your business via the proper social media outlets.

If you are a school administrator, foster parent, social worker, or you know of a teen that could benefit from these experiences, you can also reach out with requests. Please be sure not to include any identifiable details in your email.

Photographers outside of Wausau can volunteer their time to do sessions for foster seniors

Salon Owners can offer services at little to no cost for these sessions

Clothing Retailers can offer gift cards or discounts for youth to shop for their sessions

Local businesses can "adopt" a session to gift or they can offer services if they help enrich the experience. Each session averages about $250.00.

High Schools can donate or discount the cost of the yearbook to the senior

Anyone that can donate goods or funds towards a session

who can help and how?

I am personally donating my time and providing print packages to an average of 6-7 youth each year. I would also love to network with salons and clothing companies to be able to give these foster kids an amazing experience, something that most have not had a chance to do. My goal is to offer each gifted session a full makeover complete with hair, makeup, outfit and prom dress. For teen boys it would be hair cut, style and a fresh new outfit or two. Both would also get a photo package and their school yearbook. Not only would these makeovers help them look amazing for their portraits, but the new clothes and fresh style can help boost their confidence to get out there in the real world with their heads held high, and ready to conquer their future. If they can see how their community cares for them, it would make a world of difference.

One of the greatest gifts of being a photographer is to find and share the beauty within our subjects. To watch our clients faces light up as we share their images with them is so rewarding. I have never experienced putting on a gorgeous prom gown before, and when I take photos of senior girls in their gowns, I just grin from ear to ear the entire time. There is that part of me that is so thrilled to be able to experience moments like this through others. Call it living vicariously, but really it is an honor to be able to document these moments knowing they will be treasured forever. Speaking from my own experiences growing up, I long to be able to give this gift to high school youth in foster care, because most are not able to experience it. And, if they do make it to a school dance, it is rare they can afford their own Senior portraits.

My Story

the background on

I was just 3 years old when my mother abandoned me in a parking lot. This began my journey into foster care. I was placed in several foster homes and placements during my 14 year stay in foster care. I was adopted, and then returned back into the system a short time later. Throughout my time in care, I stayed at over 17 placements and experienced the good and the bad of our foster care system. I have had to overcome many obstacles to get where I am today, and I hope that by sharing my experiences they provide the insight and the tools to help those who are either struggling now, or those that know someone who is going through a life journey of their own. Giving a purpose to my past is healing for me, and I hope by sharing, I can inspire others while helping to bring awareness to the voices of those in the foster care system.

My Journey

I am working with local social service agencies and leadership associated with foster care to create a fund to help foster and at-risk teens feel valued and supported as they go through their high school years. Many foster kids never graduate high school, and I am hoping to change that statistic. My hope is that this fund will help encourage foster and at risk teens to stay in school, provide incentives like compensation for good grades, money for sports and club activities, assist with wardrobe and makeovers for life events such as prom, Senior photos, job interviews, and all those fun high school moments that many foster teens don’t get to experience.

My Mission Today

Through awareness, I am hoping to teach others to not be afraid of, or ignore those who are different. A smile, some kind words to someone who is down, these things can go a long way. There are many ways we can help each other, and no act of kindness is too small. A community who cares for each other is a community that thrives. I have created a small list of ways you can help others. I challenge you to choose something from this list, or think of a fun idea of your own and make a goal to accomplish at least one kind act before the end of the year. You will be amazed at how much helping others is good for you too!

Kindness Costs Nothing

My husband and I have three sons. Our oldest is in the Navy, our middle son is a junior in high school and our youngest is in the 6th grade. We have a dachshund and a hound from the pound. I am a Senior Business Analyst with OptumRx and I also own and operate SCENE Portraits, LLC, where I am a photographer. My passion is photographing high school senior sessions, as they keep me young!

My Life Today

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Wisconsin high school senior portraits by Tamara Dawn