Last night, a tight-knit group of child welfare professionals gathered to bid Teri Kook goodbye.
During her 12 years at the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation, where she most recently served as the senior director of child welfare, Teri built a reputation as one of the country’s most imaginative thinkers on how to improve educational outcomes for foster youth, and helped lead the foundation to national prominence on child welfare issues writ large.
But for me, and many among the small group who gathered to celebrate her achievements at a restaurant on the banks of San Francisco Bay last night, Teri’s influence was much more personal.
In a conversation we had the day before the gathering, Teri told me one of the things she loved most about working in a charitable foundation was being a “talent scout.” Through her grants, she was able to invest in people and their ideas, and for me it marked what was the most important turning point in my professional life to date, maybe forever.
It was in January 2010, on a foggy, cold and all-around nasty day in downtown San Francisco. Six months earlier I had come up with the idea for Fostering Media Connections (FMC). And that is all it was, an idea, borne in the mind of a then-youngish man who was going through some painful personal upheavals.
I was not supposed to be in San Francisco that day. But, a relationship had abruptly ended in Los Angeles, and I was in the Bay Area because I wanted to be around family. Despite my saddened state I managed to set up two appointments to discuss my idea for FMC: one with a cantankerous California politician named John Burton and the other with Teri Kook.
The first did not go so well. Amy Lemley, the policy director of the foundation that bears Burton’s name, had set up the meeting, and graciously introduced me as an eager journalist who had some ideas on the foster care issue du jour: Assembly Bill 12, which would become law nine months later, extending care to age 21 in California. Burton, who is famously prone to lacing his sentences with expletives, was true to form and batted away my ideas as little more than idealistic fluff.
Having made no impression whatsoever, I was walked out into the cold by Lemley, who pointed me in the direction of the Stuart Foundation. I managed to say goodbye, turned and started a low, embarrassing sob. My personal life was in ruins, and my professional dreams would never be realized, or so I thought.
But there was little time to fret. My second meeting was in a few minutes. I slunk into a pizza shop under the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid and shot straight for the bathroom. My eyes were red and raw, and I looked so wholly deflated that any hope of resurrecting my day or my idea for FMC in the next meeting was forgotten.
Ten minutes later, I was sitting across from Kook in one of the Stuart Foundation’s posh and cozy interview rooms. I immediately felt at ease. In fact, the nasty day broke a bit and some persistent rays of sunlight came through the window behind Teri, forcing me to squint. Calmed by the light and Teri’s inquisitive demeanor, I simply said what I thought I could accomplish by matching problems facing foster kids to solutions in news stories.
Teri listened, probed and then simply asked me how she could help, and readily promised the first grant that FMC ever received.
In a moment when I completely doubted myself, Teri believed in me. And that changed my life.
Five years later, and I found myself saying goodbye to Teri with 30 or so others, many of whom had been touched by her like I had.
Jennifer Rodriguez, a heroine of foster care advocacy, talked about when she first met Teri, more than a decade ago. Rodriguez was in foster care, and Teri was the director for Stanislaus County’s child welfare department. Rodriguez described how Teri had listened to her and the other foster youth who were then just starting to organize through the California Youth Connection. This capacity to listen to the needs of the people she is trying to help, Rodriguez pointed out, has painted all of Teri’s work since.
It is cliché to say there was not a dry eye in the house, but in this case it was true.
In a field that is low on the totem pole of political priorities, it can be easy to feel small. But Teri always knew how to make us working in it feel big. And she then nurtured that into big changes for the entire child welfare system.
That is something that really does not have to do with Teri’s position at Stuart. That is more about who she is as a person. So as we, who gathered to bid her farewell, grieved a little, we also took comfort in knowing that the Teri we love has not gone away. Whatever her next incarnation is, it bodes well for that which we care about most: helping children.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Imprint.