Friday, November 27, 2009

Underground Railroad to Success for Foster Care Youth

Local Advocate for Foster Children Awarded Business Grant
Baristanet, Nov. 24, 2009.

Tanisha Cunningham knew too well how difficult the transition from foster care to emancipation can be. Having been raised in foster care and group homes herself, the sudden transition to independence was jarring. "The fact that I succeeded is not the usual case. It was not because I was given the resources, but because I sought them out for myself."

Her own experience in foster care inspired her to work in the New York City Child Welfare Office and to later pursue advanced degrees in Public Administration. In January 2009, she started The Underground Railroad to Success, Inc., a Montclair-based non-profit designed to provide resources to children transitioning out of the foster care system. According to Cunningham, most children in this situation never receive information about available resources, information that could assist with housing, job opportunities, and tuition grants for higher education.

The website lists dire statistics about the path of emancipated foster children: "According to the Child Welfare League of America, 25 percent become homeless, 56 percent are unemployed, 27 percent of male children end up in jail."

Currently, the new organization's activities mostly center around arranging workshops for children aging out of foster care in the age groups of 15 - 17, or recently emancipated adults between the ages of 18 - 24. These workshops focus on a variety of life skills, such as learning how to manage stress and emotions, set up bank accounts, and dress for interviews. "These are things that may seem obvious to you, but for them they are not....Most kids coming out of foster care are not educated, they have system hopped from foster care, group homes, or been incarcerated," said Cunningham. "They need to be taught these skills."

Cunningham leads most of the workshops herself, but sometimes seeks the help of professionals, such as arranging for a Rutgers faculty member to talk about the process of applying for college, or staff members from local banks to discuss financial literacy.

In the future, Cunningham would like to raise the funds to create a group home for older children. For now though, the organization is still focusing on gathering available resources for foster children. Having worked in the New York foster care system, the New Jersey laws and resources are considerably more complicated by comparison, and the organization's first goals are to understand and compile the available resources to help the children.

URS was recently awarded a $500 stimulus micro-grant from Investing In Women, a group that empowers women with small businesses or non-profits. The money will be used toward marketing URS, says Cunningham. "There are a lot of people who don't know about this need, and we are on a mission to raise awareness."

URS is welcomes donations for their services and programs, as well as dedicated volunteers to serve as mentors.

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