Two books recently came to my attention, and both, completely different and compelling in their own ways, are about foster care—and life after it.
First was Finding a Forever Family, by Los Angeles news anchor Christine Devine (with Allison Bottke). If you live in the Los Angeles area, you likely have seen the Emmy-winning Christine on KTTV Fox 11 News. She's an adoption advocate through the Freddie Mac Foundation's Wednesday's Child, and has been honored with the Congressional Coalition "Angels in Adoption" award. The book highlights a weekly segment she's done for 15 years called "Wednesday's Child," and helping to create families for children in foster care, hence the book's title.
Christine's book is also, in a way, a love song about the children, families and professionals whose lives are brought together and, sometimes challenged by the system. The book is also personal, Christine was also adopted, and her family shared their home with five foster children. Visit her website to learn more.
Meanwhile, Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut novel, The Language of Flowers tells the story of 18-year-old Victoria, emancipated from the foster care system for the first time, who at once must face the future and confront her past.
For Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the story is also personal, but in a different way. She and her husband have been foster parents, and the experience not only influenced the novel (which has sold in 40 countries), but the decision to start a nonprofit called the Camellia Network, to "support youth making the transition from foster care to independence."
Vanessa took time to answer questions about her book, but also about this much-needed program. If you're interested in additional posts about foster care, read: "What is Home?" or "The Child's Clock and The Parent's Motivation" or "The Foster Care-Reunification Conundrum."
Meredith: What does the Camellia Network do? Is it the only one in the US?
VANESSA: Our mission is to activate networks of citizens in every community to provide the critical support young people need to transition from foster care to adulthood. We do through three pillars of service: fulfilling registries, making connections, and forming communities.
We are the only national non-profit engaging citizen donors and social networks to support young people aging out of care. There has been interest from the UK (where the foster care system is very similar to ours) and in other European countries, but right now we are focusing on establishing our network in the United States.
Meredith: What do most people not realize about older children in foster care? Or, rather, once older children leave foster care/are emancipated from foster care/graduate foster care?
VANESSA: Most people in our country have no idea that on their eighteenth birthday, many young people are forced to leave the foster care system, even if they have absolutely nowhere to go. Lacking family or community support, the personal and societal outcomes for former foster youth are tragic. Each year thousands face isolation, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and exploitation as they struggle to make their way into adulthood: 25% become homeless within the first two years, 25% become incarcerated, and within 4 years, 60% have had children, and those children are twice as likely to be placed in foster care. And so the cycle continues.
Meredith: Was there a particular event or moment that crystallized your need or desire to create Camellia Network? A certain point in time where you were compelled to "do."
VANESSA: Yes. When I sold my book in the manner I did-at auction, and in 40 countries!-I realized very quickly that I would have a platform from which to speak about the challenges that youth face when they are transitioning out of foster care. And as started to speak about this issue, I heard the same response over and over again: I didn't know this was happening! Followed more often than not by the words: How can I help?
I had recently been involved with a group of women that had helped a young man transition from foster care to college. We had arranged an early move-in to the dorms, purchased gift cards at a grocery store for the weeks before the cafeteria would open, and registered him at Target for everything he would need his freshman year. Because there were over 20 of us, no one had to spend very much money and we were able to make a huge impact on this young man's life.
As I started my book tour I began to wonder-what if we could implement something like this on a national scale? I believed strongly-and still do-that the "aging out" issue is a solvable problem. While 20,000 youth a year may seem daunting, if you break it down by community it isn't very many. In my hometown of Chico, California, less than 100 youth age out every year. I thought that if we could find a way to showcase exactly what each young person needs to be successful-and then to make it easy for people to help-that citizens everywhere would step forward.
Meredith: How did you start it? What does starting a program like this "look" like? How long did it take?
VANESSA: The first thing I did was to call my long-time friend, Isis Keigwin. She'd spent her career in advertising and was currently working as a senior strategist for Ogilvy. I explained the situation: I'd written a novel that had garnered significant attention for the plight of youth exiting foster care, and citizens all across the country were asking me what they could do to help. Isis is one of the most creative, innovative and big-heart people I know, and after a series of exciting conversations, she left her job to become the Co-Founder and CEO of Camellia Network. In 2011 we launched a pilot project serving 50 kids in12 states; in 2012 we will expand significantly, impacting more youth and engaging citizens in an entirely new way.
Meredith: Was writing the book happening at the same time?
VANESSA: No, I'd already finished the book when I launched Camellia Network.
Visit the Camellia Network to learn more and get involved.