While its five prizewinners won’t be announced until this fall, the Walentas Family Foundation recently released their selection of 22 finalists.
These people, who epitomize the motto of “only in New York”, showcase a sense of grit and flair in their humanitarian efforts. They focus on issues such as homeless advocacy and criminal justice but also include broader initiatives like sustainability and uplifting the local community with creative expression.
Felicia Wilson is the executive director and founder of What About Us Inc. – a nonprofit organization that helps New York City’s foster care youth ages 16-25 through multi-faceted mentorship programs. She is a finalist for the David Prize and was inspired to create the organization based her own experiences growing up in the foster care system.
What About Us is the first nonprofit of its kind in New York City. There are currently 2,277 children in the city’s foster care system that are older than thirteen years old, according to a recent study done by the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, and What About Us connects them with mentors who also grew up in foster care as a way to help young adults build skills in independent living, job readiness and personal development.
Wilson was born in the Bronx and spent 17 years living in foster care, from when she was 4 years old to 21 years of age. She had spent time in 63 different foster care placements and remembers when she was transitioning out of foster care that there was virtually nothing for her to rely on as a young adult or guide Wilson until her foster-mother stepped in.
“I transitioned out of foster care in 2005, where I literally was on my own – no support, no resources, I was facing homelessness – until my foster mother extended her services to allow me to stay in her home in Far Rockaway, Queens on the condition that I worked towards getting my undergraduate degree.”
At John Jay College she went on to earn a degree in criminal justice, and while attending the school she was hired at the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice in 2007. While working there she began to piece together the parts of a pipeline between juvenile detention and the foster care system.
“I told myself there has to be more than just this – more for our young people than just them lounging on the couch and watching television or playing PlayStation,” Wilson said in reference to the lack of rehabilitation or mentorship options in juvenile detention at the time. “There was nothing designed to fix these systems, and I saw how foster care and juvenile detention went hand-in-hand – literally how these systems make money off of our foster youth.”
In talking to some alumni of New York City’s foster care system, Wilson was able to get a picture of how these services weren’t progressing as she gained an awareness of how they actually work in practice. The conversations revealed that a majority of foster youth in their teens didn’t know what success in life for them could look like and that the likelihood of these people who go from foster homes to juvenile detention facing incarceration later on in life is high.
“It literally costs anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 to send one child through the New York City education system, yet it takes millions of dollars – depending on the services they need – to house a child that goes between juvenile detention and foster homes,” Wilson said, explaining that a majority of funding set aside for foster care specifically goes to family permanency and mental health services.
And according to the ACS of NYC, preparing for a high school equivalency test, help paying for needed school supplies or activities, tutoring, and help applying for school are among the services that the city’s youth in foster care need the most. Wilson said, “I realized there has to be more than just this broken, one-way system that’s not helping our foster youth.”
It pushed her to create the first alumni-based organization in New York City that provides services to foster youth. She felt it was especially important for alumni to be a centric part of the organization because of their ability to relate to foster youth based on their own experiences.
“In the times in which we live, this is an organization that focuses on those that are literally suffering the most in black and brown communities. We are a diverse group, and it’s important to show our black and brown youth that they’re not alone and that we look like them. By connecting, we can positively affect the trajectory of how these young people are maneuvering through life. The fact that our mentors can relate to their struggles is what really makes us unique.”
She recalled one instance in which there was young woman at What About Us that really struggled with her mental health. Just like Wilson, she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression as a child. She called Wilson one night, crying over a prolonged conflict with her mom and concerns for her own safety. At the time, the girl was grappling with an increase of shootings in her local neighborhood and had nearly been struck by a stray bullet that came crashing through her bedroom window one night.
After having a conversation with Wilson, the young woman considered places to go that would be safer, eventually traveling down to Florida to live with her father’s side of the family. Wilson said, “She told me it was the best thing she’s ever done, and I told her that whatever additional support she needs I’m here for.”
“To know that I gave some clarity and a little push in the right direction to stabilize [her] mental health means everything to me. In that moment I realized I took her out of a situation where she felt stuck and gave her comfort but also hope in talking to her and guiding her.”
The David Prize would help Wilson bring in people that are outside of her expertise and pay for professional consults, in areas like civil services and mental health. If What About Us has someone that wants additional education support, those extra funds would be crucial to bringing in more mentors and educators to give foster youth the support that they need.
“It was important for me the create What About Us,” Wilson said. “I wanted young people to see that their circumstances don’t define them and that they’re the own narrator of their own life.”