OYA Foster Parents Lead Annual Backpack Event


As if fostering OYA youth wasn’t enough, Maria Mihm and Celie Kaleta also help organize a community event that provides supplies to schoolchildren.

MCMINNVILLE — Every August, Maria Mihm, Celie Kaleta, and many other volunteers lay out a colorful array of new backpacks on the floor of a McMinnville elementary school.

A few hours later, local schoolchildren come in with their families and “shop” for the pack that they love most. They also get to pick out pens, pencil boxes, glue, crayons, and other supplies they will need for the coming year.

The families were invited to claim the packs and supplies because they were unable to afford them on their own.

Even though the supplies are free for the families, Kaleta and Mihm — who are mother and daughter — want to provide the children with a “normal” shopping experience, like their classmates.

“We want them to feel like they shopped and picked what they really want,” Mihm says. “We want them to feel like they’ve been empowered to make those decisions.”

Mihm and Kaleta serve on the board for Beyond Backpacks, a nonprofit that has organized the supply event annually since 2004.

But it’s not the only way they are helping youth in their community. The two women and their husbands are long-time OYA foster parents — Maria and David Mihm for 21 years, and Celie and Ed Kaleta for 13 years.

OYA’s Foster Care Program

OYA’s foster care program serves teenagers in OYA custody who are working their way toward returning home, as well as OYA youth ages 18 to 24 who need help learning independent-living skills.

Ever been “volunteered” by your parent to help out with a project? The same thing happens to the OYA youth living with the Mihms and Kaletas. They are often recruited to work on Beyond Backpacks.

“So many of these kids struggled with their own families. It’s nice for them to get to a point in their life where they can give to someone else,” Mihm says. “It’s a pay-it-forward kind of thing.

“Some of the OYA kids say, ‘I unloaded that backpack and then I saw a kid go off with it.’ It’s cool to see them connect the dots in their head. We’re always looking for opportunities to show the kids that life is more than them.”

Sometimes the youth grumble about having to load or unload supplies, but ultimately, they seem to get a lot out of the experience, Mihm said.

That was true for Andy L., a 17-year-old currently living in the Mihms’ home.

“I’ve never been a part of something like this before,” he says, “and it’s pretty cool to do something to help the community.”

Beyond Backpacks is a year-round endeavor. Mihm, Kaleta, and the other organizers collect monetary and supply donations all year. They keep supplies in a storage unit until the event.

They work with local schools and community organizations to identify families throughout Yamhill County who would benefit from the free supplies. At this year’s event earlier this month, they served about 1,600 people during the four-hour event.

Beyond Backpacks serves the students’ entire families. Organizers invite numerous local organizations to attend the event — including dentists, the fire department, the police department, and social service groups — to share information about their services and connect with families.

They also distribute stuffed animals to the younger children who aren’t in school yet and give winter hats and coats to all family members.

“We call the organization ‘Beyond Backpacks’ because we’re trying to do more than just the backpacks,” Mihm says. “We try to connect them with services they can use all year long.”

“I raised (Mihm) and her brother and went through school with them,” Kaleta adds. “As she was growing up, there were a lot of times we could have used help and there really wasn’t anything. This is our way to give back to the community, and it’s fun and rewarding.”

About Author

Sarah Evans is the Deputy Communications Manager for the Oregon Youth Authority, Oregon’s state juvenile justice agency.

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