Chaska High School’s Miranda Nelson Helps Foster Care Children

Miranda Nelson designed her graduation-required capstone project at Chaska High School to benefit Carver County foster care children.

When Miranda and one of her sisters, Mariah, arrived at their foster family’s door, their load was heavy, despite carrying only the clothes on their backs. A little over a month before entering foster care, Miranda, then 12, went out for a day of fishing. While she was gone, her birth mother and her boyfriend abruptly and briefly left for Kansas with Miranda’s youngest sibling, Maria, who was 15 months at the time. For three weeks after that, Miranda cared for Mariah, then 4, and Marissa, their 8-year-old sister, in their home. The children didn’t have the ability to purchase more food, wash clothes or have access to a phone.

Through a series of events, child protection services intervened and Wendy Nelson received a call late in June 2012. “Will you take these two girls?” she was asked. (The other two sisters eventually went to another foster care home.) Wendy, who has two adult children, and her husband, Ron, were licensed foster parents, having cared for Wendy’s niece for six months. Three days and one court appearance later, the Nelsons welcomed the sisters into their home, and Wendy quickly realized that the girls didn’t have so much as a change of clothes. “They didn’t have a chance to get anything [from their home],” Wendy explains.

Miranda recalls that the stress of moving in with an unknown foster family was multifaceted. “Part of that was not having anything myself,” she says. While Miranda and Mariah were adopted by the Nelsons in October 2014, and their other siblings are in the safe care of another Chaska family, the memory of how Miranda felt during those early days in the Nelsons’ home has not diminished.

Late last year, the Nelson family decided to help other children who face similar experiences on their first days in foster care. “We’re always thinking of ways to give back,” Wendy says. They began packing duffel bags, filled with comfort and personal items, which children receive upon entering a foster home. It was a bit of a challenge securing donations, as the business community was tepid in its response.

Earlier this year, when it came time for Miranda to choose a capstone project, she wanted to expand upon the duffel bag program. “It was something that I live, and I knew very well,” Miranda says.

Once the Chaska Police Department caught wind of the project, it posted information on the department’s Facebook page and in the Chaska 411 newsletter, and people responded by making donations. Wendy recalls watching one person come to their door to donate items, hugging Miranda in appreciation of her efforts. “It’s pretty powerful to see how her story has affected so many people,” Wendy says. “I’m doing this because I want to, and I want to help these people,” Miranda says.

The duffel bags include personal items (deodorant, hair items, hygiene products, lotion, makeup, shampoo/conditioner, soap), basic clothing (cold weather items, pajamas, socks, sweatshirt, T-shirts), blanket/pillow, chewing gum, gift cards, journal/pens and playing cards.

Miranda says one of the duffel’s elements strikes a special chord. “[Before foster care] I raised myself and my sisters,” she explains. “[In foster care] having people care for me was strange.”

She needed a place to release her emotions, which she did by writing. “I think the journal is really important,” Miranda says. “When I got to foster care, I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone or wanted to… It was a place I could vent.”

Nearly 30 bags were put together and are in the hands of officials at the Chaska Police Department and Carver and Scott counties (for Carver youth placed in homes there). Miranda will never know where every bag lands, but she understands they will mean a great deal. “It feels like someone cared enough about you,” Miranda says. “A lot of kids in foster care have never experienced genuine kindness.”

As of spring 2016, in Carver County, 22 youth were placed in non-relative foster homes, and 33 children were in relatives’ foster care. There are about 20 licensed foster care homes in the county. “There is a shortage, and we’re always looking for foster care homes,” says Kate Fitterer, supervisor of foster care licensing for Carver County, adding securing homes for teenagers is a particular need. The number of children needing foster care is not dwindling. “Statewide, the trend is going up,” Fitterer says, attributing it to tightening of screening criteria.

For information on how to donate, contact Miranda Nelson at mirandascapstone@gmail.com.