Foster Care to Success is an organization that helps teens aging out of foster care to navigate the real world and transition into adulthood with education and confidence. I was given the opportunity to interview Eileen McCaffrey, Executive Director of Foster Care to Success (FC2S).
It is clear by speaking with Eileen McCaffrey that she is passionate about the work she is doing with young people and wants to help with their success. What I find most interesting about Eileen McCaffrey is that while she believes in the youth she works with; she and her organization have real expectations for the youth. "I'll go fifty-one percent," she stated during our phone interview, "but you have to come the rest of the way. I will not go the full hundred percent. They [former foster youth] have to be invested in their own success."
Understanding a Foster Child's Past
Always Room at the Table
McCaffrey has had a long history of working with and living with foster youth. Her parents started providing foster care when she was a small child, and she grew up as a foster sibling. Eileen shared that there were always kids in and out of the home. When she asked her parents why they did foster care her mother responded, "At the time many preachers, rabbis and priests where teaching – 'There is always room at the table for one more.' - and we believed it!"
Foster Care to Success
Foster Care to Success was started by a young man named Joseph River in 1981 under the name, "Orphan Foundation of America." Joseph River grew up in numerous foster and group homes. River, along with a group of concerned individuals that either aged out of foster care or care about the youth who do age out of foster, created a scholarship program that helps former foster teens go to college. This program has grown over the past thirty years and has successfully helped over 50,000 foster youth receive information, advice, support or funding. After the death of Joseph River, Eileen McCaffrey was appointed the executive director of Foster Care to Success.
Foster Sibling Connection
Joseph River once lived with Eileen McCaffrey's family as a foster youth for three years when Eileen was a young child. Her mother stayed in contact with Joseph over the years and he would contact her mother when he was in town. Eileen remembered him being nice to her when he lived in their home and her mother had great affection for him. When Eileen moved to the DC area to attend school, Eileen would contact Joseph and they'd go to lunch together. Joseph would introduce her as his little sister and brag about her. She didn't understand at the time that he needed history, someone to know him, and have been a part of his past. Eileen's mother always reminded her to be nice to the foster children that shared their home because she was now a part of the child's past. Her mother taught her that one day that the foster youth would look back on their time in their home and with her as a sister, so be nice.
Eileen shared that due to growing up with foster children she feels that she has a bit of understanding about some of the trauma that foster youth experience while in foster care. She found herself having to get use to the constant change, sharing her mother, and constantly having to adapt. The same things that foster youth have to do with each move. She feels that due to this she too has an understanding – without the trauma of the moves – she saw what the moves did to the kids. "I can fight the battle because I'm not wounded, but I am mad."
Lessons We Can All Learn
I took the opportunity to ask Eileen for her thoughts and advice on how foster parents and social workers can help teens be successful when working towards transitioning out of foster care. She also had several ideas on what teens can do to help themselves, read "What Teens Need to Know When Close to Aging Out of Foster Care". Here are her thoughts on the topic.
What Do You Want Foster Parents and Social Workers to Know
Organize yourselves. Get together, sit and talk - ask, 'what can we bring into their [foster youth] lives – besides money.' Teach them to knit. Start a book club for young adults. Read the book and then discuss it with the youth.
Careers. Offer more opportunities to explore careers beyond the one day a year, "bring your child to work day." Introduce the child to people and get them involved in asking questions about their work. Let the youth learn about the process and the long, winding road of discovery that leads people to different careers.
Community support. Offer more community based opportunities for youth. Does the local YMCA offer free or reduced memberships to foster youth? Does the community center offer free memberships to foster youth?
Group home connections. If there are group homes within a community, there is a lot that can be done. Large businesses can make commitments to help celebrate a youth's birthday by supplying a cake and allowing the child to pick a meal. It's not about money or gifts, it's about making sure the child knows that they are special. Other business people in the community can teach the youth about their career or how to do something. A local mechanic can go and teach the kids how to change a tire and oil while discussing how to buy a car and the expense of owning a vehicle.
Volunteer opportunities. Does the high school offer volunteer programs so that the youth can learn skills and meet more people in the community?
How Can Foster Parents Help a Child Make a Transition
Notice the little things. That's what's missing in a foster child's life, people noticing and remembering the little things that bring an individual child joy. Make a note in the child's lifebook about how Suzy likes orange slushies or skipping through puddles. If you don't write this history, it will be forgotten.
Teach the difference between want and need. Teach foster children about delaying gratification. Many of these kids lack maturity and are always wanting something they can't have and are not living in the moment.
Help develop interests. If you notice that a child really opens up and comes alive when around animals, explore how you can help develop that interest or talent further. Get creative.
Look for strengths and not weaknesses. Every foster child has a source of resilience within them. Look for your child's strengths.
Help them finish high school. Try to help them keep on track, it's easy to get lost in class. School is often their safe place, where they can feel special. The cream always rises to the top, if your child is in the middle, they can get left behind quickly. If your child is lost, they might feel inadequate and won't ask for help. Advocate for your child, help them be successful. Get them a tutor if needed.