Sara Start Fund helps former foster kids with life as interns on Capitol Hill

Washington Post (July 15, 2011) The interns, all former foster kids, had aged out of the system and made their way through college. Now they were in Washington, on Capitol Hill, working at the seat of power and, Lindsay Ellenbogen noticed, not always having the resources to succeed.

 They had a willingness to learn – often they arrived early, stayed late and were eager to take on any task, even if it was just making copies or answering phones. But many had never been far from their homes. Few had ever spent time around politics or politicians. And when they asked questions about how to write a news release or listen in on a committee meeting, staffers were often too busy to show them the ropes.

“When you’re on Capitol Hill, you’re living three days before noon, so you can’t really stop and help somebody,” said Ellenbogen, who worked as a Hill staffer alongside the former foster youth.

 Now, nine years later, Ellenbogen is supervising another group of former foster kids and making sure they have an easier transition into the world of a Washington intern.

Last year, Ellenbogen, a Chevy Chase resident who had worked as a Hill staffer for 10 years, joined the advisory board of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship program, or FYI.

 The nonprofit organization was started in 2001 by a group of senators and congressmen to help educate lawmakers about issues in foster care, adoption and child welfare policies. Each summer for the past eight years, FYI has placed former foster children in congressional offices where they can advocate on behalf of a group they know well: the more than 460,000 youth in foster care across the country.

 This summer, at the urging of Ellenbogen, there’s a new component to the program. The Sara Start Fund, named after Ellenbogen’s late grandmother Sara Rosenberg, provides the interns lessons in how to work and dress on Capitol Hill and a chance to shop for professional business attire.

 Rosenberg was the person who “helped over the big transitions,” whether it was heading off to college or starting a new job, said Ellenbogen, who now works as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York.

 “In many offices, you’d have a progress report, and those are easy compared to the ones I had to give to my grandmother,” she said, laughing. “She really wanted to know what was going on.”

 Rosenberg passed away in December. Ellenbogen said she began to look for a way of “honoring her role in my life and looking at our foster youth interns and how we could help them transition to Capitol Hill.”

 Providing resources

 Marisela Ortiz and Derrick Riggins had never worked far from home until they arrived in the District in June. But each had spent time in multiple homes growing up.

 Ortiz, 23, said she was placed in foster care at 13 when her parents did not have enough time or resources to care for her and her eight siblings. She went through seven foster homes.

 Riggins, 26, also entered the system at 13. He said his abusive father beat and threatened to kill him while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The Tampa resident had not thought about going to college until his sixth foster family, the only one that encouraged him to think about a career. Now, he is interning for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

 According to a study by Casey Family Programs, which focuses on foster care and improving the child welfare system, only 3 percent of 660 former foster youths sampled had graduated from college.

 Both Ortiz and Riggins now have college degrees; Riggins also has a master’s in social work. And both have decided to pursue careers that will allow them to work on child welfare issues.

 Fifteen interns have been placed in congressional offices this summer; more than 200 had applied. One of the first things Ellenbogen did was give them what she calls “prep 101,” crash courses on Hill essentials such as the basics of writing news releases and the process of federal budgeting.

 “We sat down and talked about what the budget and appropriations committees do. What’s the difference between the debt and the deficit? What are the parts of the federal budget?” she said.

 Ortiz, who is interning for Sen. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), said Ellenbogen’s mentoring was one of the most helpful aspects of the program.

 “It’s about giving you the resources to get where you want to get,” Ortiz said. “It’s not about pity.”

 Becoming professionals

 Ellenbogen raised $500 for each intern to have a shopping day at Macy’s. But it wasn’t a shopping spree. With Ellenbogen’s guidance and that of the store’s personal shoppers, the interns got a lesson in what and what not to wear on the Hill.

 No five-inch heels, Ellenbogen said. “That’s not going to work on Capitol Hill if you’re running after a senator, bouncing in and out of hallways and meeting rooms.”

 Flip-flops were also unacceptable, she said. And, like Rosenberg taught her before, clean hemlines were important.

 Ortiz bought a few conservative suits, dresses and shoes in neutral colors. Riggins bought light dress and polo shirts, important for keeping cool in Washington’s humid summer. He said the shopping experience showed him how to look professional on a budget.

 Ellenbogen also partnered with Bloomingdale’s, which provided the interns with accessories, and Matchbox Restaurant, which gave each a $50 gift card to help pay for a group lunch in June where they talked about their internship experiences.

 She also got Under Armour to provide sportswear for the interns so they could participate in another Hill tradition, the after-work sports teams.

 The clothes and softball games have all been great, Riggins and Ortiz said. But what has made the difference is the relationships formed.

 “I don’t think it’s the fact that the funding was there,” Ortiz said. “It was Lindsay, honestly, being there for us.”

 Riggins, who hopes to stay in the District and attend law school after his internship ends, said the job is different from any he has held before.

 “One of the biggest transitions is they treat you like a professional even though you’re still learning,” said Riggins, who plans to become the first African American governor of Florida.

 “They are not charity cases,” Ellenbogen said of the interns. “These kids have usually worked hard and deserved these opportunities. … This is about being a complete professional.”

 Published: July 15

By Sarah Khan

Washington Post

Filed in: In the Press, National News

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2 Responses to "Sara Start Fund helps former foster kids with life as interns on Capitol Hill"

  1. Gail Biro says:


    I have worked in child welfare for 25 years and want you to know what a wonderful program this is; these youth are surviors all they need is a network of support your program is evidence of what a small commitment can do to change lives. I would like tot introduce you to a simuliar program that would boast your efforts. This is also a civic engagment iniative and is about building lasitng relationships.
    Open Table provides a model to engage individuals in an enduring relationship and a network of support for youth leaving foster care. Founded on the principles of civic engagement the model provides the great potential to create social change and transform the lives of youth leaving the foster care system. Successful civic engagement models combine the intellectual capital of sector experts and the social capital of the community. This demonstration project is not for foster youth aging out of care, but instead creates an opportunity for youth aging into a community by creating a sustainable network of supports and opportunities for youth to develop to their fullest potential. The cornerstone to our approach is mobilizing the intellectual capital of a committed group of individuals in the field of child welfare, psychology, research, and academia and government entities to form the social capital to support members of the faith community to use their intellectual capital to rally around youth leaving foster care.

    Open Table is a fairly new initiative that has incredible potential to change the fate of the approximate 29,000 youth aging out of foster care, who based on recent studies, will likely find themselves in poverty with little to no supports. By engaging the faith community in long-term individual transformation; this civic engagement model has the potential to invite the 20,000 congregations in Texas alone. The Open Table Model shares the core values of High-Fidelity Wraparound and intertwines them with a new innovative approach that is rooted in sustainable relationships.

    This civic engagement model integrates new social service “technologies” that empower foster decision making and self-determination rather than seeking to control it. They include a strengths based psychological assessment process for education/career guidance; a pre-community phase in which a strengths- based platform to enter the community is built; and a long-term phase that draws sector expertise and will benefit from the evidence-based practice of 25 years of experience and research of high fidelity wraparound.

    If you would like more information about starting the iniative in DC just shot me an email; I know the funder of the program well.

  2. marisinging says:

    For six months I have been providing, free of any charges, sleeping space for a 19-year old young woman whose parents threw her out. For six months I have been unable to find her any help from DSS except for food stamps. No shelter would take her in. I had to shelter her. She recently was able to get PAC. She is diabetic and has not had medication for over a year. Her father took her off his medical insurance. She is pregnant. She is homeless. She has no cash.

    I am somewhat aghast at how much is done for foster children in Maryland. I personally have seen a voucher which approved a $500 pair of boots for a foster child (I think it must have been for a foster child. It was for a child who was about to go camping in Colorado). I have personally seen requests, all approved, for movies, at $100, dinners at local restaurants, shopping trips to WalMart with caseworkers, I could go on but this is the tip of a very strange iceberg.

    I do not see that foster children, at least in Washington County, appear to be struggling to survive. The young woman I have been trying to help is struggling to survive and there are no resources to help her, except food stamps and, now, PAC.

    So, for me to read that foster children leaving the foster care system may be able to become interns in the Capitol, or have other assistance to help them make it in the community, I am confused as to where is the help for young persons who are not in foster care? What happens to them?

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