A 19-year-old former foster child and 2016 Ridgefield High School graduate wants to help those going through what she’s experienced over the years.

That’s why Grace Burns did a fund-raiser for Together We Rise, a national organization focused on helping children in the foster care system.

“I used to be a foster kid and I really wanted to contribute back,” she told The Press.

All the money Grace raised — over $1,000 — went toward buying suitcases for children in foster care, so they could put their belongings there — instead of the black trash bag they’re usually given when it’s time to move.

Grace’s mom, Kristen Burns, has made fostering one of her life’s missions and maintains relationships with her foster children even after some of them are reunited with their families.

“She [Grace] knew that some kids are taken out of their parents’ homes suddenly and they throw all their stuff in a black garbage bag,” said Kristen.

“That’s the most common way that kids have to transport their stuff from home to home; sometimes they go to shelters first or group homes and it’s not very dignified — many kids who were foster kids complained about that feeling of just having a black trash bag,” she said.

Open adoption

Grace was formally adopted by Kristen when she was four. Through an open adoption she keeps in touch with her biological mom and her two half-sisters.

“They have maintained contact several times a year,” said Kristen.

“They get together for holidays and it’s worked.”

At home, she has three brothers and a sister.

She’s been with Kristen since she was a two-month-old baby, but it took years in court to arrive to the open adoption.

Contact with her biological family was the spark that ignited Grace’s mission to make a difference in the system.

“In the last year, she started thinking about it and exploring the idea of being part of her biological family,” said her mom, “trying to find out information from them and working with an adoption counselor.

“And it kind of grew out of that that she felt she really wanted to give back in the department of children and families.”  

Overcoming challenges

Grace feels right at home working at The Prospector Theater.

“The Prospector made me feel like I can accept myself for who I am and not be afraid to make mistakes,” she said.

She didn’t always feel this way.

“Grace has had a lot of challenges,” said Kristen.

“In school she had a severe learning disability, but she’s come a really long way, she’s come really far.”

Now she enjoys her part-time job and is always willing to go the extra mile.

“I pretty much do a bunch of different jobs there [The Prospector] and I’m doing a lot,” she said. “I was their Belle for Beauty and the Beast.”

In her spare time, when she’s not fund-raising or volunteering, she likes running and photography — a skill she uses by taking pictures at The Prospector.

“I was on cross country and track in high school, and I did figure skating and was on a Theater on Ice team.”

Giving back

Grace started her fund-raiser back in January, and donated the bags to Together we Rise in May.

She used social media to spread the word — The Ridgefield CT Facebook group as well as the Together we Rise page.

Ridgefield came through.

“People in town contributed, not only friends and family, but people who read her story and thought it was wonderful she was giving back to foster kids,” said Kristen.

Grace ended up filling and decorating 30 bags, having raised over $1000.

“We decorated them by hand with these oil pastels and we just drew pictures,” said Grace.

“I drew Pokemon balls and smiley faces and stuff to cheer up the kids so they can see their bag has been personalized.”

“When a child gets one of those bags, they can tell they were hand-decorated, so they know that somebody took the time to do it themselves,” added Kristen.

This isn’t the first time Grace has been involved in helping foster children.

“I also worked at a camp last summer for adopted kids called Camp Clio — I was a counselor,” she said.

“I loved the whole experience and all the games we got to do with the kids; and learning everyone’s names and everything.”

At times, it was a challenging job.

“Some of them had really emotional needs that I did not know how to handle,” she said.

Grace and her mom have also participated in Kids Care Club, and make “Christmas Shoeboxes” full of presents for homeless children.

“I just like doing something that kinda like relates to me in some way,” said Grace.

“The Prospector relates to me in a way, Together We Rise — things that have some meaning towards me — I like to give back to those and help those businesses.”

Looking forward

With her whole future ahead of her, Grace isn’t sure what she wants to do next — but she knows where she wants to end up.

“I eventually want to see if I could maybe start my own business for foster kids or special needs kids,” she said.

“Something like that — I just love the idea of doing something that I also went through.”