Fostering Hope was established in 2006 by the Colarelli Family Foundation and achieved its independent 501c(3) status two years later. The organization began as a pilot program to test whether community volunteers could successfully assume the role of an extended family to foster families, and if they could, would this in turn improve outcomes in foster care. Would foster parents be less likely to burnout? Would kids heal and do better in school? Would there be less bouncing around?
The pilot was preceded by 4 years of extensive research in which the Colarelli family interviewed foster parents and former foster youth, and reviewed hundreds of pages of scholarly articles/research on trauma and its related fields. Out of this research emerged two clear findings:
- Healing from childhood trauma and healthy development for children in foster care required three key ingredients: a sense of stability, enriching developmental experiences, and connections to other who are safe, loving and can help to re-establish trust.
- The child welfare system was not designed to provide this kind of non-professional, natural support.
With cooperation from the El Paso County Department of Human Services and its partners, Fostering Hope recruited two teams of volunteers from two faith communities. Each team was paired with a separate foster family to provide things such as babysitting, rides to soccer practice, tutoring, or date nights for mom and dad.
Over time, the number of teams increased – as did the data to show the program’s effectiveness. Foster parents quit burning out. Kids were less likely to “bounce around” from home to home. Adoptions increased.
About 10 years later, Fostering Hope discovered another challenge. Our foster parents caring for teens began to share the concerns and challenges associated with “aging out.” Although their children were doing well – in part because of the support from Fostering Hope – they would soon be on their own with little support. It was demoralizing for foster parents to invest in their kids’ lives, only to see them enter a world where the playing field was so uneven.
Fostering Hope added an additional segment to its program, Fostering Adulthood, to address this challenge. Based on a similar approach of enlisting volunteers to become “extended family,” it modified the concept of an extended family to meet the unique needs of teens and young adults coming into independence. Instead of “aunts and uncles,” these volunteers and the staff were more like adult friends. Instead of tutoring, a volunteer might help with grocery shopping. Instead of meeting in a foster home, teens and volunteers would get together socially to cook meals together or participate in fun outings like rock climbing.
Fostering Hope began finding ways to meet the practical needs as well, securing donated cars to help youth get to work or school. Connecting a young person to an employer who is willing to give a little grace and take a chance on someone. Paying for a pair of work boots or taking them out for a meal to talk about life. Today, Fostering Hope is even able to offer safe and affordable housing.
Today, Fostering Hope volunteers have served hundreds of foster children and the parents who care for them. Yet as the organization grows, it remains deeply committed to its bottom-up approach of learning and innovating.
In July, 2008, the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program awarded a one year development grant to the Fostering Hope Foundation and several community collaborators:
- The Medical College of Wisconsin
- The Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare
- Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin
- Faith Partnership Network
- Consultants from UWM Helen Bader School of Social Welfare
Along with input from foster parents, former foster youth, the faith community, human services professionals and other stakeholders, the planning effort allowed the community to tailor Fostering Hope for implementation in Milwaukee. After joining forces with SET Ministry, Inc. as an administrative partner, our inaugural team of volunteers from St. Marcus Lutheran began working with its first foster family in the summer of 2010.