The track team’s annual service project distributed blankets and notes to foster-care children. Tori Wichman | Courtesy

The one thing senior Tori Wichman has kept from her years of growing up in foster care is a blanket from the nonprofit Children’s Lantern. It’s pink, with purple threading around the border.

Wichman led a service project this October to help other kids in foster care get the same sort of comfort she got from that blanket. For the women’s track team’s annual service project, Wichman organized a letter-writing campaign to write 200 letters to pair with blankets and send to kids in foster care.

Wichman planned to have students write letters of encouragement in the Grewcock Student Union one Monday in October. She got a warm response: The track team reached 200 letters far before the end of the event.

“Writing letters can be pretty intimidating, but people were pretty responsive,” Wichman said.  “Some people filled the entire card with so many encouraging words.”

Wichman encouraged students who didn’t know what to say to write any kind of reassurance, even jokes.

“God will get the blanket and card to the child who needs it, whether they need a Bible verse, a quote of encouragement, or a joke,” Wichman said.

“Tori has a tremendous heart for foster care and adoption…it was neat to see so many of our athletes get behind this project,” head track and field coach Andrew Towne said in an email.

Senior Mackenzie Yaussy’s family has participated in foster care, most recently hosting two young brothers. Yaussy promoted the track team’s volunteer efforts on Facebook, saying that she “loved the idea of doing the blankets.”

“For my brothers, they didn’t really get gifts before they came into the foster care system,” Yaussy said. “Giving gifts is a way to help the kids and show them love…It shows that other people than those directly involved in the foster system care.”

The blankets paired with the letters were made by a group of older women from Wichman’s church, Family Christian Center in Defiance, Ohio. The women, who call themselves the “Thread Club,” make the blankets and pray over them personally. Then the blankets are sent to Children’s Lantern, a nonprofit organization that serves the foster care community.

Half of the blankets and letters from the track team’s project will go to job and family services in Hillsdale County, and the other half will go to the Hope House Boutique, which offers resources for foster kids and their parents.

Wichman said she got the idea for writing letters to foster care kids from the initiative of Children’s Lantern and from the Day of Thanks, an event where Hillsdale students write thank-you letters to donors, professors, friends, and family.

Wichman’s initiative to serve the foster care system comes largely from her own past growing up in foster care. Wichman was put into the foster care system at age 12 after being separated from her mentally ill single mother.

Wichman lived in 12 foster homes during her years in foster care. When she was 16, she found out about Children’s Lantern and began volunteering there. She has been with them for five years and now works with them part time as a family care coordinator.

“I was put through this part of my life, a very difficult part of my life, so God could be glorified — through my knowledge from being in it, I could help a system that was broken,” Wichman said.

Many children are let out of the foster care system, or “emancipated out,” when they are legal adults. Wichman was emancipated at 18, and spent the next four months moving from house to house, trying to graduate high school and finish up her last track season at the same time.

During this turbulent time, Wichman sought advice from her high school track coach.

“Through all of my homes, I stayed in the same school,” Wichman said. “My track coach was a constant adult figure for me.”

After four difficult months, Wichman’s high school coach offered her a home with his family.

“They’re who I go home to. They’re my family now,” Wichman said with a smile.

Not all foster care stories end like Wichman’s.

“The statistics regarding foster care are pretty saddening,” Wichman said. “After emancipation, many end up incarcerated, sick…so many end up homeless.” says that only 3-4 percent of foster children go on to bachelor’s degree or higher, as opposed to 36 percent of kids from a normal home.

According to the same website, more than 670,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care in 2015.

If she could change anything about the foster care system, Wichman said that she would let kids lead more normal, stable lives, while getting rid of many of the stereotypes placed on foster children.

“When these psychological, negative labels are put on children, that’s eventually what they’re going to believe,” Wichman said. “If they’re instantly labeled before being offered stability, then that label is all they have.”