Spokane Journal of Business

Meet & Greet with Skyler Oberst, of Embrace Washington

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Skyler Oberst has been hired as executive director of Embrace Washington, the Spokane-based nonprofit with a mission to provide support and care to children in foster care.

Oberst was born in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in Vancouver, Washington. He graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in anthropology and philosophy with an emphasis on religious studies. Prior to taking the leadership position at Embrace Washington, Oberst worked at the office of global initiatives at EWU as a special projects coordinator and served as a legislative assistant for the Spokane City Council. In addition, Oberst is a delegate representing youth for the G20 Interfaith Forum.

Located at 2202 E. Sprague, in the Sprague Union District neighborhood, Embrace Washington was founded in 2014, and serves 13 counties. It has two full-time paid staff members in the office in addition to the organization’s co-founder, Alene Alexander.

Embrace is a private nonprofit organization that is funded through community support, partnerships, and grants, and has a projected annual budget of $268,000 for 2022.

The Journal recently sat down with Oberst to discuss his new role, the landscape of the foster care system in Spokane, and what he looks forward to accomplishing in this new role.

Can you tell me what the foster care system looks like in Spokane?

The thing that I’m learning is that foster care is not top of mind for people. It’s often the hidden need and ironically enough it’s one of the biggest needs in our community that can have one of the biggest impacts. Anywhere from 800 to 1,000 kids are experiencing foster care here at any given point.

Providing children a sense of belonging and reminding them that they are not alone is the best way of building a fundamental block for community building.

If you have a child who has a sense of belonging through a great, well-equipped foster family and they start to feel loved, safe, and empowered to take on educational opportunities, friends, and a network of people who love and support them, you will no longer have someone who is frightful, fearful, or will run away and choose things that are not necessarily the best for them.

What are some of the challenges that families in the foster care system face?

Everything from stigma to real-life, everyday problems. For example, there is a blind foster mom here in Spokane. She has two kids with high needs, a baby and a toddler, who are (under her care). She spends five hours on Spokane Transit Authority buses every day getting the two children where they need to go. Embrace Washington got her a stroller that easily collapses on the bus. What we are doing now is working to find transportation for her in the winter, because if she misses a bus, some of these bus lines are 30 minutes apart.

I got to witness an adoption recently of a 17-year-old boy who has autism. His new family loves to go bike riding, but because of his autism, he is not able to bike on his own. We got him a tandem bike that he can ride with his family. It’s these little things that make lives easier for families and kids.

What are some of the programs at Embrace Washington?

On my first day working for Embrace, we had a retreat for 50 foster mommas. We rented a retreat center on Deer Lake. These moms were so grateful for spending time around a glass of wine and a campfire with one another and with other moms who are experiencing the same things. Providing those spaces is something we do.

Another program we have that I’m really excited to chat about is the Bed Program. When kids enter the foster care system, it’s not just one child, they often have siblings as well. In Washington state, a child has to have their own bed; they cannot share a bed with anybody else, not even their siblings. Even more traumatic than ripping (siblings) from their home, now you are going to separate them.

Embrace Washington provides beds and bedding. Embrace also provides duffel bags that are hand painted and beautiful for children to carry their belongings. It used to be that a child was given a trash bag and only a few minutes to gather their treasured belongings. We also provide welcome boxes that have age- and gender-appropriate toys, toothbrushes, and a nightlight. And they get a brand-new bed. It’s something we are really grateful and happy to do, because that is what we should be doing as a community.

What are you most excited about?

I’m really excited to be creative and figure out what is best for families. It’s something I’m really proud that we have done here. Sometimes, equity has not been on the forefront when it comes to some of the supplemental agencies that work with the Washington state Department of Child, Youth, and Families. We are hoping to change that. 

We are working on a video now that will be public soon on the YouTube page. It is for white families who are fostering kids of color to educate them on what shampoo products to buy, how to deal with hair, and things like that, because I don’t know if everybody has the same level of literacy when it comes to these small things. This again will give a child a good sense of belonging.

With our wish program, we have received 381 wishes this year. Kids can request funding for things like softball equipment or to join a soccer team. 

In the past, we fully funded a child’s softball fees and equipment, and in some cases, they were able to get a college scholarship, again changing the life of that child. The demographics of who we are serving have diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and they are not all male or all female. So I’ve reached out to the Martin Luther King Center and Spectrum to ask how we show up for kids of color and how we can show up for kids who are gender nonconforming. We want to create a sense of belonging and empower families to love on kiddos, whoever they are, wherever they have come from, and whoever they will end up being.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Karina Elias
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Reporter Karina Elias covers the banking and finance industry. A California native, she attended the University of California at Santa Barbara. Karina loves salsa dancing, traveling, baking, cuddling with her dog, and writing creative fiction and non-fiction.  

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