Nonprofit supporting foster care children opens new boutique for teens

Founder Danny Mendoza joins Foster Love Executive Director Gianna Dahlia Mulkay at Rise Boutique.
Founder Danny Mendoza joins Foster Love Executive Director Gianna Dahlia Mulkay at the ribbon-cutting of Rise Boutique, which offers clothing and other products for foster teens and young women.
(Courtesy of Foster Love)

Aliscia Brorman clearly remembers when she and her siblings were first taken from their home in Oklahoma and moved into foster care.

“I remember so pure and simple, the day that we were taken from our home the first time — me and my siblings,” said Brorman, who is 26. “And I had police officers there and social workers there and all they cared about was shoving this trash bag in my face saying that I had 15 minutes and I could pack three shirts, two pairs of pants and a personal item and we needed to go. And I’m like, I need answers. Where are my siblings? What is happening? Where are we going? And they just want to hand me this trash bag. And it was so dehumanizing to be handed a trash bag in a time when you have no idea what’s going on, it’s chaotic, they don’t want to tell you anything, because you’re the child.”

Brorman understands firsthand the very basic supplies that children in foster care must often go without — such as suitcases. Many years into her time in foster care, she received a college scholarship through Brea-based Foster Love, a nonprofit that helps children in foster care with many of their greatest needs, including Sweet Cases — which are duffel bags including a cozy blanket, hygiene kit and teddy bear, as an alternative to the standard trash bag. Founded in 2008, Foster Love’s latest program is Rise Boutique, which recently opened in Brea as a retail experience where teens and young women in foster care can shop for new clothes and accessories from popular name brands.

Teens shop at Foster Love's Rise Boutique.
Teens shop at Foster Love’s Rise Boutique. Rise Boutique offers teens in foster care a place to shop for new clothes, shoes, accessories and personal hygiene items from popular brands like Vans, Hurley, Macy’s and Thrive.
(Courtesy of Foster Love)

“Kids in foster care suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome at almost twice the rate of U.S. veterans. Being removed from your family, your home is highly traumatic,” said Foster Love Executive Director Gianna Dahlia Mulkay. “So, when they’re transitioning and going through that scary time, they now have those comfort items and those basic necessities to make the experience a little bit more dignified and supported. By creating comfort, delivering support during this time, we can create better outcomes.”

According to their website, Danny Mendoza founded Foster Love after discovering his 9-year-old cousin, Roger, living in a car. Mendoza was not able to become a foster parent because of his age, but it gave him the idea of developing alternative support for children in foster care. In addition to Sweet Cases, Foster Love’s programs also include Birthday Boxes, Superhero Boxes, STEM Boxes, Shopping Sprees, the Family Fellowship Scholarship and sibling reunification via Disney Days at Disneyland in Anaheim and Walt Disney World in Florida.

“Siblings in foster care are often separated through placement, due to lack of foster families available,” Mulkay said. “Every year, we reunite at least 350 siblings who have been separated in placement. They spend a day at Disneyland and forget about their worries, what they’re going through and just experience this magical moment.”

Mulkay said that volunteers come out to chaperon the children on Disney Days, and one year, a young couple came out to help. They didn’t have kids of their own and they’d never really considered adoption or foster care.

“At the end of the evening, the kids were crying, the young couple was crying, they had just bonded so much. The next day, they called me and shared, ‘Gianna, we want to adopt all three,’” Mulkay said. “I responded, ‘You might just be feeling the high. That’s great. But let’s wait two weeks. If you’re still serious about this conversation, give me a call back.’

“Sure enough, they called me in two weeks, and I was able to connect them with the kids’ social worker and the agency. Two years later, they adopted all three of the siblings.”

Brorman, who now does some contract work for Foster Love assisting with special events, attended recent Disney Days, one in California and the other in Florida. She understands what it feels like to be separated from siblings in foster care.

“I did my first Disney Days last September,” she said. “It was amazing because I was also separated from my siblings while I was in the foster system. And so getting to see all of these children and knowing that … not only knowing what they were feeling in that moment, being able to be reunited, but then also getting to see them have a moment of a childhood back to them. No trauma, no turmoil. Just pure fun, imagination and exploration of this beautiful park. It was so impactful.

“And then also leaving it was difficult because at the end of the day, you see the siblings separated. You see them going to their respective homes or their foster homes. And seeing that oldest — and as I was the oldest taking care of my siblings — knowing the impact, knowing what they were feeling. … It keeps me motivated to continue on my work of advocacy and reform and policy reform.”

Rise Boutique held its grand opening Feb. 16 at Foster Love's headquarters in Brea.
(Courtesy of Foster Love)

Mulkay said Foster Love opened Rise Boutique because teenagers are one of the most vulnerable groups in foster care.

“We wake up every day and are able to pick what we’re going to wear,” she said. “What we wear is a huge part of our identity. It helps us establish who we are and who we want to be. … Being a teenager is already challenging. Throw being in foster care on top of that. You’re just thrown clothes. ‘This is what you have to wear.’ It curbs their sense of identity.”

She said they saw Rise as a way to help transform what it’s like for teenagers to enter foster care for that first, second or maybe even third time.

“Rise was created not just to provide essential clothing but to provide an experience that allows these teens to feel seen and that someone sees who they are and who they want to be,” Mulkay said. “It’s inclusive, it’s welcoming. It has a cafe-slash-Nordstrom boutique type vibe. We wanted it to be casual, but more than a Goodwill or thrift store experience. These aren’t hand-me-downs.”

Mulkay said Foster Love partnered with several local brands that are popular with teens, including Vans, Hurley, Macy’s and Thrive for hygiene items.

Brorman said the impacts of a boutique like this go beyond fashion.

“Instances like the Rise Boutique, it gives them a second to say, ‘Someone believes in me,’” Brorman said. “It empowers them in a way that I can say from firsthand experience just keeps them going, it keeps them pushing forward. And they can leave the Rise Boutique saying, ‘Hey, I matter, I feel good.’ And whenever you feel good, you look good.”