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Wrapping Love Around Children in Foster Care

As a former foster youth and Bethel alum, Alison Penner Rahn ’01 is an anomaly. Research shows only 3% of children in foster care graduate from college. For Penner Rahn, it was the love and support of her community that made the difference—and now she works to emulate that support for youth in foster care as president of nonprofit Minneapolis Angels.

By Cherie Suonvieri '15, content specialist

June 24, 2019 | 9:45 a.m.

Bethel University alumna Alison Penner Rahn '01

Alison Penner Rahn '01, President of Minneapolis Angels (All photos submitted by Alison Penner Rahn)

When Alison Penner Rahn ’01 was 15 years old, she entered foster care at her own request. Because her mother battled mental illness, she was often cared for by relatives or babysitters throughout her youth. But as a teenager, Penner Rahn started to understand the dysfunction that accompanied the inconsistency at home—so she decided to change her story.

“I could see other families modeling something different, and I knew I wanted that,” Penner Rahn says. One morning, she picked up the phone and called the pastor of her church. The pastor and his wife were foster parents, so she took a chance and asked if they had room for her.

They did. And while her path was non-traditional compared to other foster placements, after walking through the necessary legal processes, Penner Rahn moved into her new home.

Penner Rahn is from Mountain Lake, a southwestern Minnesota community with a population of just over 2,000. Her foster parents also lived locally, so she never had to change schools and was able to maintain the same placement through high school graduation. “That’s significant when it comes to reducing trauma,” Penner Rahn says. “As an adult, I’ve come to learn that every time a child moves schools, they take a six-month education hit.”  

Mountain Lake High School was small enough that the staff were aware of her family’s situation, and they became her circle of support. “I really credit education as being the saving grace for kids who come from hard places,” Penner Rahn says. “When kids are safe at school, when they are fed at school, and when they have supportive adults saying, ‘I expect big things from you, and you are capable of doing big things,’ it makes all the difference.”

Penner Rahn’s experience was unique. While youth in the child welfare system in Minnesota are entitled to a free college education at a state school, only 3% of children in foster care will graduate from college. But Penner Rahn never once doubted that she’d go to college, because the adults in her community never doubted her either.

 

“There is this unique need to understand that kids who have come up through the foster system are legitimate learners. People come to college with different backgrounds, and they may not be the most common, but they are still valid and needed in the college space.”

— Alison Penner Rahn '01

Penner Rahn started her junior year at Bethel in 1999 after transferring from another private college in Minnesota. She lived off campus with her husband, Kevin, who she’d known all throughout her time in foster care. Though she didn’t experience the campus housing community at Bethel, she found family among the faculty.

“The professors at Bethel were a gift. I was able to get to know them as people, and I think that’s a really rare thing.” Penner Rahn says. “Bethel professors extend themselves differently than I’ve seen in any other setting, and they really seek to invite students into key experiences.”

Penner Rahn originally entered Bethel as a music major, but soon found herself majoring in psychology and minoring in family studies. She worked as a research assistant alongside Professor of Psychology Gretchen Wrobel, studying the effects of adoption on kids and families. This work helped Penner Rahn start to process how she could use her personal story to make an impact in the future.

After graduation from Bethel, Penner Rahn’s career touched a variety of fields including academia, human resources, and family childcare. Today she’s working in health and human services for a county agency, and she also serves as president of Minneapolis Angels, a nonprofit that exists to support youth and families in foster care.

Minneapolis Angels Board of Directors

Penner Rahn with Minneapolis Angels Board of Directors

Similar to the way Penner Rahn’s hometown community wrapped support around her, Minneapolis Angels works through two programs called Love Box and Dare to Dream—both of which are based on a wraparound model. “Not everybody is called to foster and not everybody is called to adopt, but everybody can do something,” Penner Rahn says. “Minneapolis Angels provides a way for people to do something that’s meaningful for youth and children in foster placements, as well as their caregivers and the family system around them.”

Through the Love Box program, Minneapolis Angels supports children from birth to age 15 by matching them with a Love Box leader or group—an individual or several adult volunteers who offer consistent support through giving, relationship building, and mentorship. “Love Boxes are created around what brings joy and relationship with the children in care,” Penner Rahn says. Often a Love Box gives items that support the child’s passions, like athletic equipment or art supplies. Love Boxes can also provide payment for a summer camp or a special class of interest. “It shows the children that their Love Box group loves them, hears their dreams and goals, and chooses to support them.”

In addition to supporting the children, the Love Box program offers support to the foster parents as well. They provide tangible items like favorite household supplies, snacks, and groceries—or they serve the foster parents through actions, such as providing respite support or facilitating activities to help the family make memories together.

 

“About 50% of foster licenses close within the first year, often due to the lack of support and the strain that the families who foster may face while they do the important work of caring for children who have experienced hard things. The Love Box program seeks to provide support to those who are in those roles, uplifting the entire fostering family system.”

— Penner Rahn

Through the Dare to Dream program, volunteers serve as mentors to teens in foster care through early adulthood. Mentors are there to be resources, role models, and coaches as their mentees work to complete their high school education and meet goals designed to prepare them for independent living. Dare to Dream mentors also support their mentees as they determine the path they’d like to pursue when they age out of foster care, whether that’s college, trade school, military service, or something else. Both Dare to Dream and the Love Box seek to build normalcy and resiliency, empowering youth in foster care and their foster families to thrive.

According to statistics provided by National Angels, the parent organization of Minneapolis Angels, once in the foster care system, children move homes an average of seven times in two years. Around 50% of youth who age out of foster care obtain a high school diploma. And nationally, 50% of the homeless population spent time in foster care.

Penner Rahn and Minneapolis Angels are working to change that trajectory for children and youth in the foster system. “As the data starts to come in and as we gather the information about how our programs are working, I’m so excited because I know the value of this approach from my own experience,” she says.

When Penner Rahn reflects on her life story so far, she’s most proud of the fact that she didn’t give up. “God created me because He thought the world needed me, so my job is to show up and do what I’m supposed to do.” she says. “I don’t take credit for that, though. The credit goes to the people around me that kept telling me that I have a choice.”

Alison Penner Rahn family

Today, Penner Rahn lives in Shakopee, MN with her husband, Kevin, and children, Bellamy, Finnley, and Jackson.

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