About the Founder
I've always been an optimist - a silver lining, light at the end of the tunnel, glass is half full kind of person. Even when I was young and was placed in the North Carolina foster care system with my younger sister (I was in 10th grade and she was in 9th), I was able to tap into my optimism and remain hopeful for the future. First, we were put in a group home for a few months, leaving the school where we had attended for years and saying goodbye to all our childhood friends. Then we were moved to an emergency shelter where two yearlong beds had opened up, and we lived there for several more months. In the middle of my junior year, our uncle was able to make arrangements for us to move from North Carolina to Maryland, where we moved in with our grandmother, changing schools yet again. However, she felt she was too old to take care of two teenagers, and in the summer before my senior year, my uncle again stepped in and made arrangements for us to move in with his in-laws (my aunt's brother and sister-in-law). This couple - whose children were grown and out of the house, happened to be foster parents at the time. They took in babies who were placed in foster care until custody decisions were made. We didn't know them, but they opened their home and took us in, and I am happy to say that we have been part of their family ever since.
With our extended family's support, my sister and I both graduated from high school. Of course, I think that was going to happen anyway as I was obsessed with getting A's in school. I think that may have been because it was the one thing that I felt I could control in my life, or it could have been that my mother instilled in us the importance of education before things went bad…or maybe a combination of the two. In fact, we both went on to college, as well, and we had our foster parents' home to come back to over breaks and the summer. After I finished college, I moved in with my father and found a job in Maryland while my sister finished college in Pennsylvania. (My father had been estranged since I was 7 years old, but we got back in touch and decided to try to repair the relationship.) My sister and I then got an apartment together and I found stable employment at Milton Hershey School, a residential school in Pennsylvania for at-risk youth. I could go on, but you get the point - we had family rooting for us and helping us when we aged out, and with that support, both my sister and I were able to transition to adulthood successfully.
About Aging Out Institute
We were among the fortunate ones. As you know, too many youth in foster care do not have much, if any, support when they leave the system and they struggle tremendously with the transition to adulthood. That is why I started Aging Out Institute (AOI) in 2010. I wanted give back. I wanted to create a way to connect foster youth across the country with resources that can help them prepare for aging out and that will support them after they age out.
AOI is a website that serves as a central repository for resources (programs, nonprofit organizations, projects, tools, training, events, etc.) designed to help youth age out of foster care and into adulthood successfully. AOI provides resources primarily for four groups of people:
1. Foster youth approaching the age of 18
2. Former foster youth who recently aged out of the system
3. Foster parents
4. Professionals who work with foster youth (e.g., social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors)
The database of resources that the AOI website houses is continually growing as organizations find out about AOI and add information about their programs and services through the website's submission form. I have been quite pleased with the progress, but I still want to do more. I want to raise awareness about aging out of foster care, but not necessarily about all the challenges and difficulties that youth face when they age out. I see plenty of stories about the hard time these youth have when they leave care. No, what I want to do is to align my work with my optimistic nature and focus on the good things - the success stories.
Resilience, Knowledge, Skills and Support
Although the statistics for youth aging out of foster care are grim and so many struggle with homelessness or unstable housing, drug addiction, early parenthood, etc., we know there are foster youth out there who are successfully aging out of care. This doesn't mean that they are having an easy go of it. I don't know if it is ever easy to leave home and start life on your own. However, the successful youth are more proactive, make decent choices, and work through the challenges that come up. So the question is…why do some foster youth succeed when so many don't? Although many of these youth may have a resilient nature that enable them to handle their circumstances with strength and positivity, resilience alone is not enough to succeed when trying to live on your own. They also must have the knowledge and skills necessary to live an independent life, as well as at least one supportive adult who can help them make good choices.
This is where the adults in their lives do (or at least should) make the difference. While youth are in care, foster parents have the opportunity to teach them the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful in adulthood, including things such as how to apply for college, how to look for a job, and how to apply for an apartment. They can teach from experience, utilize packaged life skills programs that help guide foster parents through the teaching process, and/or partner with organizations that have services designed to help prepare youth for adulthood. After aging out, youth have the opportunity to take advantage of services that organizations or states offer to support them as they figure out life on their own. These organizations' services are varied and include helping youth get into and complete college or other vocational programs, transitional housing, life skills training, help finding employment, and connecting youth with mentors. The idea situation is for foster youth to have engaged foster parents who take the time to help teach them about the things they need to know and be able to do in order to live on their own, organizations with solid support strategies to lean on after they leave the foster home, and a strong relationship with at least one supportive adult who would be there for them before and during their transition to independent living.
The AOI Awards Program
With several years of experience running an annual global awards program focused on identifying and sharing effective workforce training strategies, I knew that I could leverage my background and design, develop and implement an annual awards program for AOI. So, I decided to move forward and started planning in early 2017.
The goal of this awards program is to identify and share effective strategies that foster parents and organizations are using to help prepare youth to age out and support them after they age out. The awards program isn't a research study, and I don't claim that the awards program will identify the global "best practices" in foster care. Rather, I want to use the awards program to get down to ground level and find out exactly what is being done on a day-to-day basis to help youth age out successfully. For example, I want to find out which tools or programs are being used, what organizations foster parents are partnering with, at what age certain skills are taught, how youth are practicing their new skills, what kind of follow up is being done to see if the youth are applying what they've learned, and so on.
As mentioned, foster parents and organizations play a critical role in ensuring that youth can succeed out in the world after they leave foster care. AOI wants to call out these hard working professionals and publicly thank them for their dedication and creativity. In addition, we want to identify and share their successful strategies with the foster care community. If certain strategies are working for the winning foster parents and organizations, then they could work for others in the foster care community, too.
Research studies focused on youth aging out of foster care show that there are key factors that impact long-term independent living success. These factors include 1) completing their education, 2) finding steady employment, 3) acquiring stable housing, and 4) having a strong, supportive relationship with an adult (or adults) who can help them through the transition. In the AOI Awards Program, there will be awards for both foster parents and organizations that are using strategies in one or more of these four categories to successfully prepare youth for aging out of foster care. There will also be awards for organizations that are using successful strategies to support youth after they have aged out.
This awards program is not one in which people nominate others for an award. Rather, foster parents and organizations must apply on their own behalf, submitting a detailed description of their programs, services or strategies that help foster youth age out of care. If you are a foster parent or work for an organization that is helping youth move through the transition to adulthood successfully, be bold and apply!
To give you an idea of what we'd be looking for, here are a few examples of the types of strategies that foster parents and organizations would describe in the awards application:
• Education: Strategies to help youth understand the importance of education, finish high school, get a GED, get into college, trade school or vocational program, prepare for life in college, finish college , etc.
• Employment: Strategies to help youth understand the importance of steady employment, find job opportunities, interview for a job, attain a job, keep a job, etc.
• Housing: Strategies to help youth understand the importance of stable housing, provide transitional housing, find an apartment, ask the right questions of landlords, read a rental agreement, find roommates, budget to pay rent, etc.
• Relationships: Strategies to help youth understand the importance of having a supportive adult relationship in their life, connect with a family member or mentor who can serve as their support person, etc.
If the strategies to help the youth in one category cross over or directly support strategies in one of the other three categories, there will be space on the applications to explain the connection. Each category will be reviewed by different judges, and it is possible to win more than one award if the judges in different categories independently select the same foster parents or organizations for an award Because of this, we encourage foster parents and organizations to apply for as many categories as they can.
The awards program is currently in development. Although the 2018 timeframe and process is outlined below, the AOI web site will continually be updated as the program details are developed throughout the remainder of 2017.
• January-February: Award applications and instructions will be posted on the website. Applicants will go to the AOI website to download the application(s).
• March-June: A panel of judges will review the applications and select the winners.
• July: Awards will be ordered and press releases will be written.
• August: Winners will be announced.
• September-December: Winning strategies will be written up as white papers.
• December: Winning strategy white papers will be shared with the foster care community on the AOI website.
The eight individuals who make up the panel of judges for the awards program are all experienced researchers and/or practitioners in the field of foster care. There is even a former foster youth and a foster parent on the panel. The judges for the 2018 AOI Awards Program are listed below with the category that they will be judging noted at the end of their biographies.
Chris Chmielewski is a former foster youth and the Owner/Editor/Creator of Foster Focus Magazine. After leaving care, Chris found himself at a loss for information on foster care and its after effects. He came to the conclusion that a monthly magazine devoted to foster care was needed. Established in 2011, he has since positioned the magazine as a top resource for foster care news and information in America. He currently handles all aspects of the magazine while traveling the country covering stories, attending conferences and events in support of the magazine. (Employment)
Dr. John DeGarmo is a leading international expert in foster care. Dr. John is a consultant to several foster care agencies and to law firms across the nation, and is a popular speaker and trainer on all things foster care. He is the founder of The Foster Care Institute, as well as the residential group home Never Too Late, a home for boys in foster care in Georgia. He has also been a foster parent for 14 years, now, and has cared for over 50 children, and have adopted three from foster care. (Housing)
Dr. Amy Dworsky is a Research Fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago whose research has focused on vulnerable youth populations. Her research interests include youth aging out of foster care, pregnant and parenting foster youth and youth experiencing homelessness. She is currently the Principal Investigator for an implementation evaluation of a home visiting pilot program for pregnant and parenting youth in foster care and is a CoInvestigator for Voices of Youth Count, a national research and policy initiative focused on runaway, homeless and unsta
bly housed youth. (Housing)
Dr. Johanna Greeson is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice. She is passionate about using research to build better futures for youth who age out of foster care, and realizing the power of connections to caring adults for all vulnerable youth. Her research agenda is based in the strengths that enable foster youth to not only survive, but thrive. She is committed to ending the aging out crisis through innovative intervention development that prioritizes interdependence over independence. (Relationships)
Dr. Judy Havlicek is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. Her research has focused on systemic barriers to well-being of foster youth without permanence. In order to better understand child welfare system barriers, she has used child welfare administrative data in Illinois to uncover the real life experiences of foster youth with respect to maltreatment allegations prior to and during foster care, placement moves and other adverse events, and receipt of services (i.e. vocational training, mental health, etc.). (Employment)
Susan Punnett is the Executive Director of Family & Youth Initiative, a DC based nonprofit that helps teens at risk of aging out of foster care develop lasting relationships with caring adults. She has twenty years of experience in child welfare and related social services. Prior to founding Family and Youth Initiative, she served for five years as Director of the Kidsave Weekend Miracles DC program, piloting a new approach to helping older children in foster care find adoptive families with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Relationships)
Tina Raheem is the Director of Scholarships and Grants at Foster Care to Success. Ms. Raheem joined Foster Care to Success in 2000, and under her management the FC2S Scholarship Programs have seen over 800 students receive their degrees – a 61 percent graduation rate. She has also helped to develop the Academic Success Coaching Program, and has authored three books on academic success and independent living for foster youth and mentors. Ms. Raheem is a graduate of The Catholic University of America. (Education)
Steve Walsh is the Director of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at California State University, Bakersfield. For the past 20 years, Mr. Walsh has served in EOP and Summer Bridge—a transitional program for admitting first-generation, low-income, high-potential students. Since 2011, he has been the Director of the Guardian Scholars Program, which provides housing support and independent living curriculum for former foster youth. He believes that higher education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty that affects a disproportionate number of young people in California’s San Joaquin Valley. (Education)
We are very excited that they have joined the AOI team to judge the inaugural awards program, but why did they do it? It will take time and energy to review and judge all the applications, and these are all very busy people, so something must have struck them as being important about this awards program. Well, here are quotes from two of them that might shed some light on their motivation:
“I don’t think we fully understand the experience of fostering for older adolescents who developmentally are gaining independence and trying to figure out who they are and who they will become. Recognizing and acknowledging the hard work and commitment of those that do this work is critical to developing understanding of how to do this better than we do. Foster parents and other organizations have a lot to teach the field. Recognizing their hard work is the first step in this process.” -Judy Havlicek, Ph.D.
“Today’s youth in foster care face many challenges and difficulties when they age out of the system. It is important for them to realize that there are, indeed, people who care about them, that there are people who want to help them, and that there are people who are cheering them on to succeed.” -John DeGarmo, Ed.D.
Getting the Word Out
We know there are many foster parents and organizations across the country that are doing great things to help foster youth age out of foster care, and we definitely want them to apply for an award. However, if they don't know about this awards program, they will miss this great opportunity. So, I am asking you - the readers of Foster Focus Magazine - to please share the link to the AOI website page that describes the award program with your own networks. Tell colleagues about it. Tell foster parents about it. Let's spread the word far and wide so that the AOI Awards Program - even in its inaugural year - receives dozens of dozens of applications and its results are anxiously anticipated throughout all 50 states! Being the optimistic person I am, I'm sure we can do it!