Alene Alexander has been the force behind Embrace Washington, a nonprofit created to help children in foster care, but she’s quick to point to others as deserving of praise.
“It’s not about what I’ve done,” she said. “It’s about what we’ve done.”
In her previous career as a teacher and school administrator, Alexander always worked with students who were in foster care. That was also the case when she was the director of the education program of a juvenile corrections facility in Idaho Falls. Then she got a job in Spokane developing a program called Set Up, which was designed to help struggling students graduate high school.
That’s when she fell in love with kids in foster care, Alexander said.
“I was almost like a truant officer,” she said. “I was in every high school in the county and I got to know the kids.”
Kids end up in foster care through no fault of their own, often going through one or more traumatic experiences. They have limited opportunities to improve their lives.
“So many of them are so smart, so intelligent,” Alexander said. “They’re your kids, they’re my kids, they’re all our kids.”
Embrace Washington came about after former Spokane legislator and coffee shop owner Kevin Parker had several discussions with Alexander and others about how to help foster kids.
“He had the idea and I had the know -how,” she said.
Embrace Washington was launched with the help of social worker Shannon Boniface on less than a shoestring. It started in the back of Alexander’s car, then moved into a converted closet with a window. Alexander resigned from her job at Spokane Falls Community College as an adviser to students in foster care to be the director of Embrace, but there was a catch: She wasn’t being paid. And even as Embrace grew and expanded, that never changed.
“At the age of 70 she gives a significant amount of her time, money and talents to ensure that some of our most marginalized community members feel loved and supported,” Boniface wrote in her letter nominating Alexander.
The goal was to help and support foster children and their families. It became about spotting needs and then moving to meet those needs. That included a request from a foster mom for help finding and purchasing a pair of size 18 marching band shoes. It was early in Embrace’s history and there was no money for such a purchase, so Alexander’s husband bought the shoes. That was the beginning of the organization’s Wish program.
“Now we grant 361 wishes a year,” she said. “We provide funds for kids to do ballet and all kinds of activities.”
The organization also spends a lot of money buying beds for foster families who are willing to accept more children but can’t afford to go out and purchase the beds required. They also recently held a retreat for foster moms and have purchased YMCA memberships for foster families.
Alexander stepped down from her role as director two years ago and is now the program manager. She marvels at how far the organization has come in nine years.
“With each and every day that went by, we saw needs,” she said, “we had no idea what we were doing. We’ve done it on a wing and a prayer.”
Chris Patterson, a former foster child himself, first met Alexander more than a decade ago when she invited him to speak to her students at SFCC as an example of a former foster child who became successful. Patterson heads two organizations that help foster youth and also works a day job at Washington Trust Bank as a community solutions advisor.
Patterson, one of several people to nominate Alexander for her award, said he’s been impressed by her commitment, grit, tenacity and drive.
“She’s never backed off,” he said. “She’s never stopped. She’s always there to keep pushing. I think it’s just in her core. It’s who she is.”
The two have kept in touch over the years and Patterson said he’s impressed by her devotion to foster youth. “She has a deep sense of compassion,” he said.
Boniface, who has been an Embrace board member since the beginning, got to know Alexander when she worked at SFCC. Even then she was impressed by Alexander’s dedication to foster youth. Alexander always kept her office stocked with food and snacks and her phone dinged constantly as students asked for help and sought her advice.
“It was just like she was a mother to them to some degree,” she said.
It is Alexander’s steady hand that has made Embrace Washington what it is, Boniface said. The organization has been her life, not just a job, she said.
“She’s in the time of her life when she could be retired,” she said. “She’s just really dedicated.”
Embrace Washington has a key role to play in the foster care system, Boniface said.
“There isn’t a lot of support out there,” she said. “It’s a huge need that needs to be filled in the community.”
While Alexander may credit Boniface with helping Embrace succeed, Boniface said Alexander deserves most of the credit.
“I helped her and supported her and came alongside, but I haven’t dedicated near the effort she has,” she said. “We just wanted to meet some unmet needs. It was very simplistic. It really evolved into quite the organization. No one else deserves the credit for that like she does.”
Alexander said it is the kids who keep her going long after the normal retirement age, kids who often have a bad reputation in society even if it isn’t warranted.
“Somebody needs to care about them other than their social worker and their foster family,” she said. “They’re just people who have been born into unfortunate circumstances.”
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