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The Pioneers podcast convenes the world social change makers to share their knowledge, challenge our assumptions, and offer practical solutions for a more equitable future. The Pioneers podcast is hosted by HeartShare Human Services, a non-profit supporting and empowering marginalized New Yorkers since 1914.
Today we would like to talk about reforming the U.S. foster care system with Dea Sumrall. Dea is an Arthur O. Eve’s scholar at Skidmore College. She plans to attend graduate school and travel the world working for various NGOs, and hopefully the UN. She believes that ideas can change the world and that education is the tool needed to bring about that change. Dea’s long-term goal is to found a nonprofit dedicated to helping those who need it most.
HeartShare NY: Welcome, Dea.
Dea: Hi, thank you for having me. That bio is a little old. I’m not so focused on international affairs anymore but basically, everything else is true.
HeartShare NY: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been up to at Skidmore?
Dea: Well, I’m now a Business Major and Arts Administration Minor, and just a lot of school honestly. I’m trying to figure all that out.
HeartShare NY: I think that the reason why you’re here is that you have been a strong advocate, even before you’ve gotten to college. Can you talk a little bit about your work and advocacy both in and outside of school?
Dea: Well, I guess “advocate” wasn’t always the word that I used to describe myself. Then, when St. Vincent’s was absorbed by HeartShare they started the Youth of the Year program, and that’s kind of what sparked my interest. I’ve been pretty disconnected from the agency honestly, kind of doing my own thing. Winning this year gave me a kind of platform to not only have a voice but kind of recognize that I could have a voice. It allowed me to just sort of dive deeper into the inner workings of how nonprofits work, and how the agency itself works. It really kind of gave me a platform to I guess complain about things that I saw and experienced kind of burn up in the system, and that I thought it didn’t work. Particularly in one instance that I went to a dinner with some donors, with Dawn and Lauren, and afterward we had a really frank conversation about what my experiences were in care again, and what are some of the things that I really would like to change. The thing that I kept coming back to, was sort of how my experience coming into care kind of shaped the way that I saw and interacted with the agency and everyone affiliated with it. So I kind of see all that as a really cool problem like, “How do you build a sense of community when kids come in and they feel like they’re not cared about essentially and that they’re kind of forgotten?” So that was kind of the premise of the project that I actually did with HeartShare. I mean HeartShare’s kind of already aware that this was an issue, and so was the City. So the experience that I had was already not going to be a reality for people anymore but we should take it a step further and say, “Why don’t we connect incoming foster youth with current foster youth so that they can kind of get an idea of how things work and get sort of a helping hand, and someone to call, and someone to connect with if they have questions?” That also provides them with written resources. When I was over in the Youth Advisory Board the one thing that kept coming up is that people didn’t know their rights or they didn’t find out until much later. It was hard for them to navigate the bureaucracy, where you have so many people assigned to help you and you don’t even know how to ask for help essentially. So that was another big goal for me, to kind of provide incoming youth with this information so they wouldn’t have to feel so confused by everything in the way that some before them had. So that was my project and that was definitely my first step into advocacy, which kind of got me into the idea of wanting to be in and learn about nonprofits, which is kind of my goal now.
HeartShare NY: That’s wonderful. Can you just describe really briefly what the Youth Advisory Council is and what your role was at the time?
Dea: So it’s a pretty common idea that it’s not easy for HeartShare, there’s a lot of other agencies that implement similar ideas, and other nonprofit organizations. I think New Yorkers for Children had these advisory boards and some other foster youth nonprofits, but essentially the idea is to kind of crowd-source ideas for change and that’s kind of what we did. I went to a bunch of American Dream Scholar events and started talking to people. With youth in care, we’ve grown up in the system so we see really clearly sort of what works for us and what didn’t. That was actually one of the easiest things to get people to talk about- what did work for them. That’s basically how it started. It was me and a group of kids, who half have been from HeartShare St. Vincent’s. We all have a completely different experience in care. It’s really interesting to kind of compare and contrast those, and sort of brainstorm ideas for what the ideal would be. That’s kind of how this happened.
HeartShare NY: So you came up with this First Impressions program. Can you go a little bit more in-depth about the structure of it, and why it’s necessary to be in place?
Dea: Well, it’s kind of three parts, right? It’s all stemmed from a lot of stuff, from my own experience and from experiences that I heard running the Youth Advisory Board. The first is a welcome basket, which is a really common best practice at other agencies but especially youth when they come into care, don’t often have anything more than kind of the clothes on their backs. That can be kind of, I don’t wanna say dehumanizing, but depersonalizing. I’m not even sure how to describe it, but it’s really not a good experience. You don’t have anything of your own and you’re already in a strange place. So the idea was to put together some kind of essentials that kids would need along with more comfort items, essentially, to make you feel more welcomed. Then there’s the second piece, which is the literature. It’s a bill of rights sort of. What are your rights, as guaranteed for us under New York State and under federal law, about how you’re supposed to be treated and what kinds of resources you’re supposed to be guaranteed. I think this is one of those important pieces because I think that most people didn’t have any idea that they even had rights, and I heard some stories that really reflected that, unfortunately. We did a quick start guide and that was kind of a guide to not being the bureaucracy. Everything from who individually, the caseworker and legal aid lawyer, but also direct contact information for other people. So one of the goals of this was to kind of create this community. Part of it was how do we get youth who are just about the youth development age, which I think starts around thirteen or fourteen, the age that they can kind of help to prep you to get through high school and to get to college. Part of it was legal aid, your caseworker, new development contacts. I forget who else we put in there, but it was just a rundown of how foster care works and how the legal aspect of it really works. You have all these hearings, you’re going to court and it’s hard not to look at it when you’re going through it as, “Oh my god, I’m in trouble,” but that’s really not the case. It’s just that’s how the system works. We thought it was really important to explain all of that in depth to incoming youth. It could be a lot of information, but we try to simplify as much as we can and make it seem not as complicated as it used to be. Then third of all, in this goal of creating a community, we decided to create sort of these youth ambassadors who were kind of exemplary, who either were in college or in the city. Basically, people whom we felt were really good examples and were really passionate about making a difference, and get them to reach out. So the idea was that the youth ambassador would present the welcome basket as well as the literature to the youth within, I think, is 48 or 72 hours of them being removed, which is kind of a small window but it’s really important to get them at that point because you don’t want kids to feel alone. That was kind of part of the whole point of this was, “How do you feel supported?” So basically to get within that 72-hour or 48-hour window, I can’t remember which one it is, and present them. It’s almost like, “Here, we care about you.” Then in addition to all these physical resources and literature related resource, also to offer themselves as a resource as well. So to be like, “Hey, I’ve been through this. I’m doing really great now. You’re gonna be fine.” I know that’s kind of a little bit what social work is supposed to do but in reality we kind of felt that youth would have the best time reaching out initially because it’s a kind of a really traumatic time to be removed. It could sometimes be easier to talk to your peers about it than to adults. Especially if the adults in your life haven’t really been so reliable. That’s kind of the idea of it on this way, and we got it funded. I was just like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is actually happening.”
HeartShare NY: I mean you must be thrilled that not only did your idea get implemented, but you have prestigious foundations backing it now.
Dea: Yeah, I think it was The Pinkerton Foundation that funded it. That was pretty cool. I mean that was definitely a big first for me.
HeartShare NY: You should be really proud of yourself. That’s really incredible. Given everything that you’ve said about First Impressions, you can really speak from personal experience. What does it feel like to enter care without that kind of support? Because I think that you and your team of the Youth Advisory Group are really trying to look out for the young men and women who are coming into the system, and you didn’t want them to feel that same way. What was that like without anyone there to sort of greet you, talk to you, that kind of thing?
Dea: Well, so with others before my experience, it’s different than the experience of youth coming into care now. When I came to care, when you’re losing your home, regardless of where in the City you’re removed from, you’re put in this place called the Children’s Center, which was in I think lower Manhattan or something. It was really not a great situation. Essentially, it felt like jail. Whatever belongings you had managed to grab during the removal process were taken from you essentially, your cell phone, your wallet, like anything you had on you was kind of put in this locked up box when you walked in. You went in and everyone wears the same clothes and it kind of felt like jail. I felt like the offensive was just you as the youth felt like you did something wrong. That’s how I saw it. I was like, “What did I do to deserve this? Did I make the wrong decision?” There was a lot going through my mind at that point. I didn’t like that I couldn’t reach out to my friends and my family, and that was something that I could see in other youth around me. So I understood that, “This is a temporary place,” and that, “I’m not going to stay here,” but you can’t go to school. They have like a room where they kind of just teach whatever the average grade level is, which could be, and most of the time is, far below what everyone is at. There were kids there who would just leave. They can’t stop you from leaving so they would just leave because they wanted to see their friends and their families so badly. They knew and were warned when they left that in leaving, they were forfeiting their place in line and that they couldn’t be put back on a list to be placed until they came back. So you have kids who just get so flustered by kind of being there and being trapped there. They would kind of keep screwing themselves over by leaving, but I could totally understand that. As far as I know, the City’s moved to a different system. I believe it’s that different agencies kind of submitted proposals on how to run their own smaller kind of intake centers. I’m not sure what sort of happened on that.
HeartShare NY: Yeah, you’re right about that because HeartShare St. Vincent’s opened their own Youth Reception Center on Steuben Street on Staten Island. So that is a much smaller home setting for kids coming into care. I think that you’re right. That’s sort of the trend because the way it was, was not working. It’s becoming much more personalized and a more human experience. It’s already a traumatic thing to go through.
Dea: Yeah, the intake process was pretty traumatic for me. After that, I felt like one of the things that really defined my relationship with St. Vincent’s, before St. Vincent’s and HeartShare merged, was this sense of like no one cared about me. So I wanted nothing to do with agency and I wasn’t interested in any of the events they were doing, or I wouldn’t stay there, and I just didn’t care. I wanted to just distance myself as much as possible because I kind of viewed them as being the same as the Children’s Center, even though I didn’t know they weren’t the same kind of place. They were affiliated. I didn’t really understand the connection until years later. That experience really just defined my relationship with the agency really up until I got to college, and that was when that relationship changed. That was after the merger. That’s when I started to build relationships with new administrators who were very adamant and passionate about making the whole experience better.
HeartShare NY: That being said, can you describe what the American Dream program is and sort of how HeartShare St. Vincent’s supported you? Because I do remember, when I have spoken to you in the past, the team at HSVS is sort of always there when you need them. So what was it like being a part of the American Dream Program and explain what it is?
Dea: Well, I’m still a part of it. I’m still in college. I think what their goal is, is really to be the kind of surrogate family. A kind of community. They’ve really done a good job of kind of building that out. I mean I think it was based on trying to tackle the abysmal high school graduation, and college enrollment and completion rates of foster kids, which last time I checked is something like 25% of us enroll in college. Three to four percent of us graduate, which is just pretty ridiculous, to be honest. I think the national rate is something like 33% or 35% or something. So you know we’re really not doing that well. I think that the idea behind the American Dream Program was, kind of, to tackle that and try to figure out, “How do we get people to college?” When you have a bunch of kids who don’t really have families?” I mean, when you get to high school, if you’re still in care, the likelihood that you’re going to be adopted is really, really low. On top of that, the economic incentives, the financial incentives are better if you stay in care. I think that if you’re adopted then your adoptive family has to pay for college, whereas if you stay in care you end up getting really great scholarship opportunities, which is kind of what happened with me. I mean, they really kind of stepped up to the plate in terms of really being there. Really helping you kind of get through high school, which I think is kind of a new part of the program which I wasn’t really part of, but also really helping you with college applications and with college in general. I mean we do a monthly check and they work with donors to kind of be able to provide us with some things like stipends, and they’re really there for emotional support too, honestly. I had to take a semester off from college last year, and they were so supportive and got me the resources I needed. I would get phone calls and text messages like, “Hey, how are you doing?” What I was feeling, and this is on a weekly basis, and they’re still really good about that. I think they’re really good about letting you know that they’re there to do what you need them to do. Whether something’s going on at school or something’s going on with you personally, they really do strive to kind of make you feel like you matter, and you have a support system, and you’re not alone in the process, which is really a big deal I think.
HeartShare NY: That’s wonderful. I’m so glad that we do that! I’m glad that the Youth Development team is really spectacular, and what I noticed is they really just listen and pay attention. That’s clearly reflected in what you’re saying here.
Dea: It’s amazing. Before the merger, we didn’t have a Youth Development department. I mean it’s amazing what they’ve done with, essentially, a really new department. They’ve really been able to build a community. There was no way to meet other kids really. There were a couple of programs but they weren’t well attended. I think one of the biggest things that happened with the American Dream Program, has been really having everyone come together in these events. Every semester I think they have more. Since I’m not in New York City I only go to the ones when I’m in the city for break actually, because I’m upstate, but I think it’s really cool. They’ve been able to create a community. It’s been really cool, for me at least, to meet other kids and talk to them, and hang out with them outside of this. Being in care is something that you don’t talk about with your other friends. I have friends obviously but it’s something that outwardly, I don’t want to be a part of my public identity, or it’s not something that I’m slowly moving towards. It’s been a struggle, and I think that’s something that a lot of other kids struggle with too. Just being able to feel comfortable with who you are, what your reality is among other people who really understand, is really important also. In that way, I think what they’re doing is really great.
HeartShare NY: That’s wonderful, and they got you to show up for some stuff.
Dea: Yes, exactly.
HeartShare NY: In your opinion, what do you think needs to change in the foster care system? I’m sure there’s probably a whole long list, but top of mind what do you think needs to change?
Dea: I mean there’s definitely a lot. I think for me right now, where I am, I would say there are certainly a lot of issues about identity that come up when you grow up in care. Especially if you’re kind of a lifelong person in care sort of like I am. A lot of kids in the American Dream Program are, and it’s something I touched upon in the last question too, which is that being able to have the tools to be proud of something that you feel like you should be ashamed about and hide. I don’t know how much of that is a mental health piece and how much of that is just feeling empowered, to be honest. Feeling empowered about that you’ve been able to take control of your life in a situation where you previously couldn’t. I’m not even sure how that would happen. I think if maybe we just somehow have funding to be able to participate and further things that kids do. I also found that I’m trying to start having hobbies because it fills up a sense of accomplishment and success to learn how to do something, how to master a skill. You’re like, “Oh my God, I feel more calm in my abilities because I have mastered this,” essentially. There’s just a lot of these personal development pieces where I think that the focus for a long time at HeartShare has been on the survival mode, “How do we get these kids the basics?” which is good. Fortunately, we are in a place where that’s what we need, but how do we bring you to the next level? Look in terms of using the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model, so how do we get to the self-actualization point? How do we help kids see themselves not as victims of the system, but people who can still live normal, fulfilling, successful lives? Then in turn, have kids become models for kids who have aged out and have made something of themselves, and are able to give back. I think it’s a whole circle. I think that’s, to me, the next step. Figuring out how to really help kids become more than just their experience in care. How to help them become successful people and adults who are not just surviving, but are striving.
HeartShare NY: I think that’s a great starting point, and you’re probably right that the mental health piece is a part of it as well. I think that nurturing that part of yourself, that’s gonna be fun. It may be challenging but fun to find some hobbies for yourself.
Dea: Well, it was just a small example. I haven’t done enough research to look at how that would happen but that’s something that I feel is very important.
HeartShare NY: Absolutely. What can our listeners do to enact social change? Say this is someone who really hasn’t been affected by foster care, maybe doesn’t really know anyone who’s been in foster care, what can they do?
Dea: Well, there’s not that many of us. There’s only like 400,000, only 500,000 of us in the whole country, so it doesn’t surprise me if a lot of people haven’t met any of us. I mean get involved. There are agencies all over New York City, definitely all over the country, and just go and meet some of these kids. Just hear the stories and realize that our lives don’t resemble at all what most people’s lives resemble, but as soon as you meet us and talk with us you realize that we don’t want that for ourselves. We know we didn’t ask for this. We kind of just landed in the system and we have to make the best of it that we can. I think that one of the most interesting parts about helping human service non-profits is that there’s a story. I think the story is part of the most powerful things and you’d be surprised how much a good story can motivate people. I think a lot of kids just want a family. Maybe not everyone is able to or willing to commit in that way, but you can still get involved in other ways. Come to events, help us with getting a job, offer yourself as a mentor, these are small things that don’t really require so much time and effort. It doesn’t require you to open your home to someone but it can still make a huge difference. I think even just having kids over for the holidays. There are a lot of kids who have no place to go over breaks. I mean there’s a lot of ways to get involved that aren’t as involved as, “Oh my God, let me open you into my family.” I mean, that’d be the goal but I understand that’s something that not everyone can do.
HeartShare NY: I think that’s important to remember that there are other ways that doesn’t involve fostering or adopting. There are so many ways to support and reach out. If we want to learn more about you, what you’re doing, especially as a future non-profit leader, how can we get in touch with you?
Dea: I mean email is the best way. I’m on LinkedIn. I guess I have to update that now. My email at school is firstname.lastname@example.org, and yeah, I could totally field emails and answer any kind of questions. That’s definitely the best way to reach me, especially now because it’s midterms and I’m dying under tests and studying.
HeartShare NY: Well, thank you for making the time for our curious listeners and fielding those responses. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Dea: Well, really I didn’t even know this podcast was a thing and I think it’s a really cool idea, honestly. It’s definitely really cool and I’m happy you’re doing it.
HeartShare NY: Thank you so much. I’m glad that you could take a break from studying to join us today. But really, thank you so much for everything you’re doing and keep it up!