How is this RI foster care innovator transforming young lives and gaining national praise?
You could call Lisa Guillette the "great disruptor." In her 20 years at the helm of Foster Forward, Guillette has sought to create a nimble and innovative agency that serves as a counterpoint to the highly bureaucratic foster care system. From Foster Forward’s East Providence offices, Guillette and 15 full-time staff members are constantly brainstorming ways to “empower lives impacted by foster care.”
“Where we’ve seen barriers, we haven’t sat and waited for them to be addressed,” Guillette said. “We’ve really sought out: Where is the power to make the change? And, how can we be the voices to bring about that change? We’ve been able to solve some pretty intractable problems, and that’s really cool for a relatively small organization.”
The stakes are enormous. Foster children are among society’s most vulnerable. As of Feb. 1, there were 1,552 children in Rhode Island’s foster care system, according to the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. Last year, 77 aged out of the system. Rather than perpetuate the status quo, Guillette and her team are upending the way in which these “kids who’ve experienced trauma from abuse and neglect” are helped.
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“What’s it going to take to disrupt the usual care that’s creating really bad downstream outcomes?” Guillette said, citing the preponderance of foster youths who face homelessness, addiction, incarceration and mental health issues.
Building stability with mentors and a nationally recognized jobs program
Guillette’s dogged determination has led to numerous initiatives. To help meet the need for long-term and stable relationships, she created the Real Connections mentoring program. Foster Forward trains adults who are matched with teens — and those aging out of the system — in order to provide guidance and friendship.
Guillette herself became a mentor to a high school junior years ago. The young woman is now attending law school.
“We squander the talents of these kids because we’re not seeing them and providing them with opportunities,” Guillette said.
She and her team also developed Works Wonders, a 12-week program that prepares foster youth to enter the workforce and retain their jobs. Each year 100 young people enter this program, receiving classroom instruction at Foster Forward as well as on-the-job training with business partners in the community. Rhode Island’s Department of Labor and Training pays the participants for the hours they work.
In 2018, Works Wonders was recognized by Harvard University’s Kennedy School with the Innovation In American Government award. Since then, this public-private partnership has been replicated in Nashville, Tennessee, and Indianapolis, Indiana.
“We want this Works Wonders model to be the nationally preferred model for workforce development for young people who’ve experienced foster care,” said Guillette. “We want to continue to replicate it in other jurisdictions.”
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'I want to save a life': Former foster kids help plan and implement programs
One strategy Guillette has woven into many of Foster Forward’s programs is to involve young adults who’ve experienced foster care. Their firsthand knowledge is invaluable in shaping and implementing many initiatives.
Take Joshua Guzman and Taylor Lee. Now in their 20s, each is the product of the foster care system. Guzman was just 6 years old when he was placed in foster care. He moved from home to home and for a couple of years even lived on the streets, where he struggled with drug addiction.
“Lisa’s like my mom,” he said. “I love that woman. She’s the reason I’m here today. Foster Forward took me off the streets, basically, and showed me there’s a better way. The number-one thing I like about them is they never give up on you. They see you’ve got potential. They’ll do everything and anything they can to help.”
Guzman, who’s earning his GED at Foster Forward, is a youth leader at the agency. He’s an integral part of the Recruitment Squad, a new initiative that targets youths who have fallen through the cracks.
“I’m here because I know that there are other kids out there who have been through what I’ve been through, maybe 10 times worse,” said the 25-year-old. “I want to save a life. That’s why I’m here every day, because I’m willing to change someone’s life, like they changed mine.”
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Lee, now a certified nursing assistant, is also a youth leader at Foster Forward. She’s a co-instructor in the Works Wonders program and is a member of the Recruitment Squad.
Lee was two weeks shy of her 17th birthday when she was placed in foster care.
“Things were fine at home,” she said. “Then, out of nowhere, things went left. It took a lot of getting used to. I was really defiant.”
For Lee, Foster Forward has come to represent stability and a permanency that foster kids typically don’t have.
“When you’re in the foster care system, one of the most traumatic things for us is that you move from place to place to place," she said. "People come and go, and you constantly lose your support system.”
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Addressing the greatest need for those leaving foster care: Housing
Now Guillette is tackling what may be the biggest challenge to creating stability in young lives: housing.
“Statistically, about a quarter of the people who leave foster care end up homeless at least once in the first year,” she said.
The severe shortage of affordable rental units in Rhode Island has made it nearly impossible for young people aging out of foster care to find a place to live. Guillette’s answer? Make Foster Forward a landlord by buying properties they could rent exclusively to former foster youth. Through grants and state funding, Foster Forward has so far bought three multifamily properties (in Pawtucket and East Providence), with a total of nine units. The young renters are able to use their federally funded housing vouchers to help pay their leases while Foster Forward ensures they receive the supportive services they need to live successfully on their own.
Her vision of providing enough housing could soon get a significant boost, thanks to a groundbreaking partnership. While the details are still under wraps, Foster Forward — along with three other agencies — will soon close on a three-acre property that could eventually bring 160 more affordable housing units to the state. Twenty of those units would be set aside for youths leaving foster care.
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Foundations for success: Diversified revenue, committed leadership
From housing to replicating the Works Wonders program, Guillette has steadily expanded and diversified Foster Forward’s revenue streams to ensure the agency can continue providing its top-rate services.
“What uniquely defines us as a nonprofit in this space is that we’re trying to get the two-fer,” she explained. “How do we activate the most innovative, the most successful, the most client-driven programs and get to the results that we’re hoping for the population we serve? And, how do we do it in a way that sets us up for success in perpetuity?”
She credits the agency’s vast impact to the amazing work and support of Foster Forward’s staff and board of trustees.
“She is tremendously respected by the board and the team members at Foster Forward,” said longtime board member John Conforti. “She skillfully combines strategic decision-making with that caring.” Conforti, who is the chief financial officer for Ocean State Job Lot, added: “She has a strong track record of being a trusted steward of every dollar raised. She simply respects every dollar and how it’s used.”
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Community Storefront provides free clothing, toys and more for foster families
Conforti, the father of two biological sons and an adopted foster child, also helped make another of Guillette’s dreams come true: the opening of a Community Storefront where foster families and those aging out of the system can find free clothing, toys, books, household items and more. The 4,000-square-foot space in Pawtucket is owned and subsidized by the retail giant.
“Ocean State Job Lot is very proud to be able to provide that space to Foster Forward in a way that becomes more and more meaningful as more people use it,” he said.
The storefront has been a lifesaver for parents like Melanie Borges. Borges vividly remembered getting a call from a caseworker in 2018 saying they had an 8-year-old girl who needed a home. The ink on her fostering license wasn’t even dry, she said. Two hours later, the girl was brought to her house with only the clothing on her back. The caseworker told Borges about the Foster Forward storefront. There she not only found clothes for the young girl, she also met a community that supported her and the child in multiple ways.
“There was a period of time where I thought: we don’t survive without Foster Forward,” said Borges, who legally adopted the girl five years ago. “She’s pretty amazing,” she said about her daughter.
For the last several years, Borges has also volunteered weekly at the store. “Foster Forward is the one agency that directly supports the child and family,” Borges said. “The services they provide are meaningful to us families.”
That sentiment is echoed by Guzman and Lee.
“Right now, where I am in my life, it’s a dream,” Guzman said. “I would never have imagined myself being here back in the day. Not a lot of people get to see the change from being a drug addict, to sobering up, to living life as a ‘regular’ human being and being respectful to others.”
Lee added: “If I ever have an issue, I can talk to Lisa. She is literally phenomenal. She’s a wonder woman.”
And that may be Guillette’s superpower: her tenacity in tackling major issues on the macro level while always remaining laser-focused on the individuals she serves.
“It might be a small organization,” said Conforti. “But I believe what we accomplish is strategically significant in many ways. That’s a credit to Lisa and to the team that’s in place. They’re very passionate about the mission.”
— Patricia Andreu, a freelance journalist living in Providence, writes Women In Action, a periodic column. Reach her at WomenInActionRI@outlook.com and follow her on Twitter: @ri_women.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI foster care innovator Lisa Guillette is gaining national notice