- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Sitting together with a group of Honors College students at ECU’s West End Dining Hall, featured speaker Danielle Gletow is practically indistinguishable from the undergraduates.

Pretty good for a woman who is nearly twice the age of many of those at her table. Even better for someone who calls herself a “proud mom” to more than 400,000 kids.

The petite, jeans-clad brunette who blends in on the college campus has become a standout among children’s rights activists - all because of One Simple Wish.

One Simple Wish, which grants wishes of children in foster care, is a nonprofit organization that Gletow founded after the arrival of her two daughters - one biological and one adopted through the nation’s foster care system.

“The idea (for One Simple Wish) was that it was going to be a registry of wishes that anybody could come on and grant,” Gletow, 36, recently told an audience at East Carolina University. “It was going to be things as little as $10 all the way up to $500, things that most of us took for granted in our childhood.

“Our organization stood to be that surrogate parent, that village that we all know that it takes to raise children.”

Since 2008, that village has grown from a grass-roots effort to help children in New Jersey to a national organization with 750 community partners in 47 states. One Simple Wish now serves some 30,000 a year, providing everything from toothpaste to prom tickets to kids and teens who otherwise would have to do without.

Gletow’s efforts have gained national attention from The Christian Science Monitor, NBC Nightly News and CNN, which in 2013 named her one of its top 10 heroes.

But there was a time in Gletow’s teen years when her world began to look strikingly similar to that of the teens she is now working to help. Though she never was in foster care, Gletow did spend time in a treatment facility, a fact that she only recently began sharing publicly.

She battled depression and anxiety, was failing in school and was struggling to fit in with her peers. Those struggles, Gletow now believes, helped her feel a kinship with teens growing up in the foster care system.

“A lot of them had struggled with their identities and wondering really what course they should take in their lives,” she said. “I felt like the one thing they were really missing was a voice.”

Two years after she and her husband, Joe, became foster parents, Gletow decided she needed to become that voice for children - and not just for the ones under her roof. She eventually quit her lucrative marketing job to become executive director of One Simple Wish.

“It really felt like suddenly it was my responsibility not only to care for these little children that were in my home,” she said, “but for every single child out there that didn’t have a mom like me.”

Gletow began by asking children in foster care what they wanted and posting their wishes on a website. The dreams were as diverse as the children themselves. Some asked for things like a bed or a bike, things many children take for granted. Others simply wanted the things their friends at school all seemed to have, like new shoes or the latest video game.

Pitt Community College student Tracy Huber, 19, understands that feeling. When she came into foster care at age 12, all that she brought with her was a trash bag stuffed with some clothes.

“(I know) from personal experience foster kids don’t get a lot of stuff,” Huber said of a previous experience in foster care.

“Foster kids want to fit in,” she said. “We don’t feel like we fit in.”

Gletow said many children and teens in foster care struggle with feeling forgotten or even invisible - and with good reason.

“Foster care is not something that we talk about at the dinner table,” she said. “… Diabetes, childhood cancer, all of these things, people look at and say, ‘That could be my kid’ or ‘That is my kid.’

“Foster care is something that impacts children for the most part that a lot of people don’t see and that they think will never be their kid,” Gletow said. “So why should they want to fix a system that isn’t going to help their children?”

Before she became a mother, Liz Fogarty decided she wanted to be part of the solution to problems in the foster care system. Fogarty, an associate professor at ECU, became a volunteer for Guardian Ad Litem, which provides court-appointed guardians to represent the interests of children, including those in foster care.

“That program, once I started to see these kids in foster care, actually opened my eyes to the number of kids who needed support beyond what I was doing in the courtroom,” she said.

Fogarty and her husband decided to become foster parents.

Now an Honors College faculty fellow, Fogarty wanted to bring Gletow to ECU to expose students to the needs that exist in the foster care system and to promote two of the main ideals of the Honors College - philanthropy and service.

“People turn and think, ‘Well that’s (foster care’s) not my issue. They’re not my kids. I take care of my own kids,’” Fogarty said. “But it’s everybody’s issue. It’s the idea that we’re all in this together.

“The way that we treat the least of the people, the people the most in need of the help, that’s how great our society is,” she said. “We should measure ourselves this way.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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