In the last 20 years, there’s been a noticeable uptick in the size and reach of foster care alumni networking organizations and events nationwide. Shalita O’Neale has been an active participant in this movement while running her company, Fostering Change Network LLC (FCN). After O’Neale’s mother died when she was 2, the Baltimore, Maryland, native shuttled between family members until officially entering the foster care system at age 13. She has spent her career using that experience to try to improve the child welfare system.
FCN consults with large city administrations, child welfare agencies and nonprofit service providers nationwide on programming, policy and training.
Now, O’Neale is starting a foundation that will focus exclusively on supporting foster care alumni older than 25. Starting on June 9, the foundation will take the lead organizing the fourth-annual Alumni Powerhouse Networking Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, which O’Neale helped found and which has grown into a professional networking conference attended by hundreds of former foster youth. While FCN focuses on consulting and advising other organizations, the foundation will focus on helping former foster youth. We called her to learn more.
Tell me about your latest venture, Fostering Change Network Foundation.
I just launched it a few months ago, but it’s been in process for six years. The mission is to unite alumni of the foster care system globally and help them build their capacity to lead, whatever their field may be in, giving them the tools and resources they need to do that.
We initially provided consulting for child welfare agencies across the country. While we were developing our alum network – I myself was in the foster care system – we all kept in contact and started doing a professional conference, the Alumni Powerhouse Networking Conference, which we started in 2015. We brought hundreds of alum from across the country together to learn about how to start a business or nonprofit.
A lot of the alum we work with through the conferences don’t have the means to pay for services, so we really wanted it to be a foundation where we could engage the public and other organizations to donate to be able to support the development of alum.
I know you’re focused on transition-age youth especially. What are the biggest challenges that population faces?
The fact that they don’t have social capital and supportive networks. From that, there’s a lot of other symptoms, [such as] homelessness and unemployment. But I think the group issue is the fact that they don’t have social capital, and they have not been connected to others who have been where they are, where they can. That is a big part of what we are doing through the foundation.
Another big part is not forgetting adults who have been through the foster care system. Once you hit 25, you are almost forgotten. There isn’t an effective way to help them keep up. The conference and the foundation have brought together people of all ages, up to 72 years old, to help people connect and support each other.
One of our programs is called the Global Ambassadors Program, a 12-month fellowship for adults 25 and older who have been in the foster care system who need additional support.
Have you looked at other organizations as a model for that fellowship?
There’s a number of fellowships that look like the Obama Fellowships. There’s a couple models like that, but we’re specifically focusing on adults who have been in the foster care system on a global scale.
So it wasn’t necessarily a foster care service you’d heard about, but something you’d seen be really useful in other areas?
Yes, and the difference is, other organizations work with alum of foster care. But we are not limited to child welfare, we are more than child welfare, we can gravitate toward business and politics and helping alum to explore those other parts of themselves that aren’t part of child welfare.
We want to help them develop themselves. We want everyone to volunteer for everyone else, speak at their events, help them on a personal level and to achieve what they want professionally.
You are working with former foster youth up to age 35. What are the lingering consequences of a foster care placement they might still be sorting through or new challenges that arise in your thirties because of that experience?
One is identity. Many of us will hide in plain sight and have been ashamed to share that we were in the foster care system. There’s a stigma with that, and concern we’ll be judged professionally or as ineffective.
So we’ve been keeping that part of ourselves secret. But it still has an effect in different ways professionally in our relationships. I’m 35 and only started recently to look at who I was as a person.
Ever since I was 25 I’ve been running programs and giving back, everything has been “foster care, foster care, foster care.” But I never stopped to say, “Well, who is Shalita? Why do I do the things that I do or have the beliefs that I have? How has my foster family or biological family influenced that?”
Many of us are only just getting our degrees when we reach our thirties. Only 3 percent of us get our college degrees in our early twenties and you hear that stat a lot, but many more do so in their late twenties. It’s about unpacking who you are, what kind of family do you really want, and the influence that you want to have on your children, the legacy you want to leave. And that’s a big piece.
What is the size of your organization?
We’re just starting! I have a great team of people, five board members and four program people who are all volunteering their time at this point. We know what we want, what we want our budget to be to effectively do our work. But we’re all volunteering.
What are your goals for fundraising?
The goal is to raise $500,000 for the organization, or secure in-kind support for business services that can offset that.
Our main focus are adults who are no longer in the foster care system, but we have opened it up for transition-age youth. Through our Global Ambassador Programs we want to work with 10 alum from different backgrounds. But through our different conferences, our goal is to reach at least 1,000 alum through services or information we provide at the conference. We’re also looking to launch a membership program for people who want to get information and stay connected.
What’s been the most fun?
Planning the conference. We kinda think tank it with different people from different fields. I love bringing people together to brainstorm who are passionate about raising awareness. Talking to other alum is exciting, they say “wow, there’s nothing like this, a conference for people like us.”
You have sat on the board of Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau and a few other organizations. What are you most excited about in child welfare more broadly, in terms of policy or trends?
I’m most excited about the alumni movement that has been churning for 10 or 15 years. Alum who are leading. I really feel like once we see alumni of foster care either within child welfare or partnering with child welfare that’s when we’ll really see lasting change within foster care itself.
I’m hoping to see more of that. Through the foundation we’re hoping to support more alum so they can work with more agencies and institutions and be leaders to continue to propel change forward.
I saw that you were named the 2017 “Maryland Mom of Year” by American Mothers, an organization co-founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. How did that feel?
As a mother, I feel like the person that my husband and I are raising will be such a contribution to this world, a light. I’m his mom so I’m biased, of course, but I watch how he interacts with people and how they respond to him. The fact that I came out of the foster care system and my mother was killed when I was almost 3 meant I didn’t see a positive interaction between a loving couple, I didn’t know what kind of mother I would be. But I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job. And when I’m gone, he’s still going to be here, trying to keep alive that legacy of being a good person.