Amber Dines was with her niece, Le’nyah Forthan, at the doctor recently when the nurse complimented Le’nyah, 8, and asked who did her hair.
“Tee Tee,” Le’nyah said, answering with Dines’ nickname that dates back to when Le’nyah was a baby and Dines tried to get her to say “auntie.”
The nurse loved Le’nyah’s hair, and asked if Dines could ever do her own daughter’s hair, as the nurse is a foster mother for an African-American child. Dines said she would be happy to, and if she wasn’t available, she has a friend who could help.
It’s the sort of thing Dines, 27, has heard regularly since becoming a parent of her own, taking in Le’nyah about a year ago after Dines’ sister had to give up her five kids. While she declined to discuss why the children were taken from her sister’s custody, Dines said she and other relatives agreed to all take in at least one of the kids so they remained with family.
“I didn’t even think about it. They needed my help,” Dines said. “I’m here and willing to do it. That’s how I was raised: We help each other out and roll with the punches. I didn’t really have to take a long time to think about it. I put my life aside to help raise this child, keep her safe and with family. We needed to step up and help.”
While stopping by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and speaking with foster parents, Dines saw other people in need of help too: the foster parents themselves. Dines was getting a lot of questions from white parents who were caring for black children.
“It sounds funny, but it’s something people don’t know,” Dines said. “The main thing was hair: they didn’t have a clue what to do with it. And skin. Our skin gets really, really dry and ashy, and certain products don’t really do much.”
That gave Dines the idea for Chocolate Kids Matter, an effort she started to put together care packages for black children in the foster care system in the Vancouver area. The packages contain things such as hair brushes, shampoo, conditioner, hair lotion, hair oil, hair detangler spray, body lotion, a hair wrap or scarf, deodorant and a tooth brush. She started thinking about the program four or five months ago.
“There was nothing like this to point people to,” she said.
Dines started buying items herself and reaching out to others, and has about 20 care packages ready to go. The packages will go to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services in Vancouver for distribution, and Dines hopes to make her fist delivery within the next month or so. Before then, she will speak with the Vancouver NAACP and reach out to the Department of Social and Health Services in Portland to see if she can extend the program there, as well.
But the program isn’t going to be just about care packages, Dines said. She also wants to give kids the option of getting a lunch buddy, someone who can go to their school and eat lunch and talk to them. Dines is also trying to work our deals with local salons and barber shops where kids from the program can go for discounted or free hair cuts.
She also wants the parents to talk and let each other know about free events they can take their kids to. Before taking in Le’nyah and becoming, essentially, a “single mother overnight,” Dines said she didn’t realize Vancouver offered so many kid-friendly free events. She said she and Le’nyah love going to movies in the park, and Le’nyah also likes going swimming and does gymnastics. It’s been quite a change for both Le’nyah and Dines over the last year.
“I did not see that in my future,” Dines said. “I was in my 20s just trying to live my life and do my thing. I wanted children, but not so soon. It has changed my life, but not in a bad way. It has pushed me to a whole other level to care for someone else.”
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