By Isis Dallis Keigwin
Two years ago, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, one of my dearest friends (and now best-selling author of The Language of Flowers), approached me with a question: What can we do to help the nearly 30,000 young people in this country who are forced to leave the foster care system on their 18th birthday?
I didn’t understand. Leave? On their birthday? I was familiar with the child welfare system and the complex and heartbreaking reality that nearly 500,000 children face as they get shuffled from home to home, and school to school, within the American foster care system.
Like most people, however, I never thought about what happened when those kids reached a certain age without being adopted. The thought that they “aged out” of foster care and were sent out into the world—often with no more than a garbage bag of belongings, expected to navigate the journey to adulthood alone with no family or support networks—never entered my mind.
Vanessa, pictured right, told me the statistics of homelessness, joblessness, incarceration, and low educational attainment—and my heart slowly began to ache.
I had spent the previous 13 years in advertising, developing strategic plans and managing multimillion dollar accounts for some of the world’s most beloved consumer brands. When Vanessa called me, I looked around and realized that I was working alongside some of the most talented, imaginative, passionate, and intelligent individuals on the planet.
And yet, we were all dedicating our lives, precious talent, time, and energy toward creating desire for commercial products and material goods. I began to wonder if there was a different plan for me. Even more, I began to wonder what remarkable difference could be made if we could find a way to enlist these highly talented, well-connected, time-starved, but big-hearted individuals in our mission to put an end to this grave social dilemma.
A Leap of Faith
In June of 2011 I left my career in search of an answer to Vanessa’s question. I figured that if I could get ordinary people to care deeply about what kind of jeans they buy, what kind of soda they drink, or believe in the magic of a theme park, I could most certainly get them to care about kids who have been abused, neglected, removed from their homes and neighborhoods to live with strangers, shuffled from house to house, school to school, and then dumped out on the world’s doorstep without a plan. It would be easy to get people to care about that, right? Little did I know, it would become the most difficult and rewarding work of my life.
In the United States, 30,000 young adults age out of foster care every year without the support and resources they need to reach their highest potential. That is 30,000 potential artists, architects, physicians, environmentalists, social activists, educators, legislators, screenwriters, poets, and inventors whose genius and ambition may remain untapped in a world that so sorely needs it.
Waking every day to slay that dragon is enough to thrust even the most optimistic social entrepreneur into the throes of despair. But, every day I reminded myself of one thing I know for sure: There are millions of people with the desire, capacity, resources, connections, and opportunities to help every single one of them succeed. They just need a way to help.
Throughout my career, I witnessed firsthand how technology and innovation were being used every day to solve incredibly complex business challenges and bring people together in ways we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. And yet, I saw none of that innovation being applied to this issue.
There were no options for time-starved, well-connected people and professionals to contribute their love, financial resources, and valuable professional and educational expertise to our nation’s foster youth in a way that is direct, rewarding, meaningful, and personal.
And yet, we are alive at time when technology allows us to bring together those who need support and opportunities with those who have them to give, without the logistical, geographic, and socioeconomic boundaries that existed before. The mentors, inspiration, encouragement, professional, and educational opportunities and answers these youth desperately seek are no longer limited to those who happen to reside within the confines of their own neighborhoods and communities.
The solution available to us no longer resides solely in the long, isolated hours of over-burdened social workers, many of whom have felt their optimism and energy wane in direct proportion to their growing caseloads and the impossible expectations placed on them.
It no longer rests on the shoulders of overtaxed and under-resourced direct-service organizations; organizations, which, year after year, see populations in need grow as their budgets are slashed. It no longer is limited to the local resources of the generous yet overburdened few. The expansive, collective resources of an entire nation can now be accessed, engaged, organized, and activated for change.
We piloted Camellia Network in August 2011 and launched nationally in August of 2012. Our mission is to give every young adult who ages-out of foster care without a permanent family an entire network of people and companies dedicated to helping them reach their potential. We crowd-source funding, opportunity, and encouragement from the general public and the private sector, and then offer all three by giving big-hearted people and companies meaningful and direct ways to engage via our online platform.
In just 18 short months, people from all over the country and nearly every corner of the globe have raised their hands to help. Individuals and corporations, book clubs, and school swim teams have signed up as members, creating supporter profiles, fulfilling gift registries, and flooding the Network with love and encouragement.
More than 40 leading businesses and organizations have joined our Resource and Opportunity Network to offer exclusive internships, perks, and professional and educational development opportunities to Camellia Network youth. That is the early success of Camellia Network above the surface. Those are the tangible outcomes.
What we consider the ultimate success of the Network is something we can’t measure. For these remarkable and resilient young adults, Camellia Network serves as a necessary reminder of the abundance of love, support, and opportunity that exists in the world—and, more importantly, that they have access to it.
I have tremendous confidence in our ability to succeed. What I learned during the last chapter of my advertising career is a truth I carry with me: regardless of the context, humans are fundamentally emotional, not rational, beings. If we can get people to feel something rather than know something, we have a chance of changing their behavior.
That fact alone gives me hope; hope of making an emotional connection; hope of cutting through the callused and apathetic public consciousness that allows half a million children to become victims of abuse or neglect in the first place without rioting in the streets.
You Can Make a Difference
There can be no lasting solution until everyday people feel compelled to look at these children as their own; to feel a sense of shared responsibility for them; to look beyond their own family boundaries and feel connected to these young people in a way that ties their successes or failures to their own. And so our work continues.
Get involved! Click here for details about how you can participate in the Camellia Network.
The meaning of Camillia: In Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s, The Language of Flowers, she explains that Camellia means, “My destiny is in your hands.” Hence, she and Keigwin decided it was the perfect name for their nonprofit.
About Isis Dallis Keigwin
Keigwin was born and raised in Massachusetts, where she learned the values of generosity, kindness, gratitude, and equality from her mother, grandmother, and their close-knit family. She attended Duke University, where she earned dual degrees in Sociology and African and African-American Studiesa as well as a minor in Markets and Management Studies.
Prior to co-founding Camellia Network, Keigwin spent more than 12 years in the world of advertising and public relations—most recently at Ogilvy, where she was a vice president and senior strategic planner. After spending over a decade witnessing firsthand how technology, creativity, and innovation were being used to solve challenges that some of the world’s largest corporations were facing, Keigwin now wakes up every day excited to put that same level of creative thinking and innovation to work on this grave societal dilemma.
In her spare time (what’s that?) you can find her in Northern California running, hiking, playing guitar, writing, or rocking out to teenybopper music in the car with her two daughters.
Stay tuned for our podcast interview with Keigwin, coming this month on the Inkandescent Radio Network.