The Social Network for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

The Social Network for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

Do you remember when you were 18 years-old? What was life like for you? What were your concerns?

Imagine you are 18 years-old and you don’t have anyone to lean on, support you, or give you answers to those burning questions like: what do I do with my life? For most 18-year-olds aging out of foster care, they are cast out to forge their own path in life without money or a community network. And, at 18, they are just like you were at 18, searching for the right path. Camellia Network was created to give youth aging out of the foster care system a community of support, resources, and opportunities so they can successfully find their paths in life and thrive.

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The Cost of Aging Out

Across the United States each year, 30,000 young adults age-out of the foster care system. Of those 30,000 youths, 25 percent experience homelessness, 25 percent are incarcerated within 2 years, 97 percent do not attend college, 60 percent will have children within 4 years, and those children are 2 times more likely to go back into the foster care system.

It’s not just a problem for them on a personal level, but it’s also an economic issue for our communities. In May 2013, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative estimated that “on average, for every one person who ages out, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social costs over that person’s lifetime.” Foster youth aging out of the foster care system, with nothing but a check from the State, is not only failing the kids, it is costly to society.

The Spark that Started it All

In 2011, Vanessa Diffenbaugh wrote a fictional story about a young girl who grew up in the foster care system, called “Language of Flowers”. Diffenbaugh’s book about the foster care system exposed the aging out issue to the general public, but she wanted to do more. When preparing to go on tour, Diffenbaugh wanted to do something productive for the community with the book’s publicity. That’s when she went to her close friend, Isis Keigwin, who worked in marketing and advertising. After reading the book in a matter of hours, Keigwin was drawn into doing something meaningful for foster care youth.

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A Social Network Model That Works

Keigwin knew about a successful organization, Donors Choose, which allows teachers and students to pitch what they need for the classroom in an online social network profile. Donors can then buy specific items or they can donate money directly to the classroom. Keigwin saw that classrooms have a real need for support from outside donors and people were more than willing to help. The model of Donors Choose is a direct exchange between donor and beneficiary and it opens a dialogue between beneficiaries and the donors who support them.

Keigwin and Diffenbaugh decided to adopt the model of Donors Choose, creating a social network for youth aging out of foster care. They empathized with the foster youth and wanted to create something the youth could rely on like they never had before. To represent their commitment, Keigwin and Diffenbaugh named the organization Camellia Network, pulling from the Victorian-era language of flowers, where the camellia means “my destiny is in your hands.”

Camellia Network started out supporting 33 youth aging out of foster care in seven different states across the U.S. Each youth has a profile page that has a photo, message board, and details about who they are and what they aspire to be. See a real profile here.

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On the message board they can regularly update the donors and supporters, giving the donors direct acknowledgement. Also on the profile page is a registry with items chosen by the individual. If she needs a bike, or colored pencils, donors can buy those specific items. Camellia Network is quickly growing and now supports over 250 youth aging out of foster care in 17 different states. Keigwin emphasizes that “over 1,400 people from around the country have joined as members, creating supporter profiles, fulfilling registries and flooding the Network with love and encouragement. But we can’t stop there.”

The Shift

Camellia Network is shifting the way people think about youth aging out of foster care by bringing them out of the shadows and exposing them to a community that is sincerely interested in their well-being.

Camellia Network is breaking down the stigma that youths aging out are “troubled”. Donors can directly interact with the beneficiaries allowing them to connect and watch the progress the young adults make. The donors can reply in an open forum to congratulate and offer their acknowledgement to the youth. The social network exposes foster youth giving them a community where they can ask questions, feel heard, and get the support they need.

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At the Camellia Network website you can choose from four types of membership: Youth, Supporter, Opportunity Partner, or Transition Partner. The Youth are called “the dreamers” and Camellia Network welcomes them by saying “We’ve been waiting for you”. The Supporters are those that want to “cheer on youth and make a difference”. Opportunity Partners are companies that “offer exclusive opportunities, perks and enrichment to youth in the Network”. And lastly, Transition Partners are organizations already serving foster youth that want to expand their impact.

A Community of Opportunity

Camellia Network emphasizes its commitments by enabling youth aging out of foster care in four specific areas:

  • Have essential material needs met, allowing the youth to focus on higher order aspirations like getting a job or pursuing higher education.
  • Access community resources available to them, which will support them in their transition, and help prevent homelessness and joblessness.
  • Be connected to employment and educational opportunities curated exclusively for them, which will increase their chances of obtaining employment and pursuing higher education.
  • Offering support and encouragement from a community of passionate citizens who believe in their potential to succeed which will increase their esteem and outlook on life and possibilities the future has in store. (Source: Camellia Network Scaling Impact Report)

With the Camellia Network, the youth aging out of foster care choose items they need for themselves. Keigwin says that is one of the most rewarding aspects for the young adults, because many foster youth grow up not having anything that is only theirs. She says giving the young adults the opportunity to choose what they need and have it for themselves is the ultimate form of independence.

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The Impact

A concern for every social enterprise is making enough profit and securing funding to continue building its positive impact. Camellia Network has grown from supporting 33 youth aging out of foster care two years ago to supporting over 250 youth today. “For every youth that we admit into the Network, we must recruit an average of 10 Supporter members to fulfill their registries, offer support, encouragement, professional connections and opportunities,” says Keigwin.

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The numbers show Camellia Network’s success, but Keigwin says, “our focus is on the qualitative experience”. The youth aging out, as well as the donors, have a new experience of life. Beneficiaries have a sense of independence, community, love, and support and the donors have freedom, connection, and acknowledgment.The purpose of Camellia Network is to give the support that these youths never had and to provide some stability as they launch into their adult lives.

So what I ask is that you join Camellia Network to grow support for the 30,000 youth aging out of foster care each year. Camellia Network is “actively pursuing growth capital funding, board growth and partnerships to ensure our long-term sustainability and increase our capacity to expand our reach”(Keigwin). Each new member helps break the predictable future of foster care youth aging out and give them what they need to create a life they love.

Written by Janneke J. Lang

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