Falls Church resident Jennifer Jacobs never imagined that she’d co-found a charity which would bring space-age technology to the nation’s foster care system and potentially change the way 437,000 foster children coast to coast find a home.
Likewise, former Arlington resident Jessica Stern, who lived with a foster family at age 10 when her mother suddenly died, never imagined that she would join CEO Jacobs as co-founder and COO of this groundbreaking venture.
Two women. Two life stories. One shared goal: to revolutionize foster care through technology, so that every child is part of a loving, permanent family.
With the holiday season here, the two determined women — who both quit high-powered jobs to devote their lives to modernizing the nation’s $9 billion foster care system — are asking Falls Church area residents and Northern Virginia area companies to join the revolution by supporting their locally based charity, Connect Our Kids, on social media, or with donations, corporate sponsorships and technological support. The need is great — even right here in Falls Church. Nearly 300 kids are in foster care in the Arlington and Fairfax counties and the state of Virginia has more than 5,000, according to Virginia State records.
The charity’s ultimate ambition: to supply state-of-the-art family connections software — at no charge — to every foster care worker in the country. The technology would replace antiquated systems that are outdated by as much as 40 years and in some cases are simply paper-based.
With the new software, Jacobs says, every child who enters the foster care system would immediately start being connected to family. Typically, if 150 to 200 adults who are related to the child — or who are somehow connected to the child (like a teacher or coach) — can be found, at least one will be ready and able to step up as a permanent parent, says Jacobs. Connect Our Kids’ cloud-based, family connections software platform could work like a technology-based adrenaline shot to the entire foster care system.
The alternatives are frightful. By the young age of 26, two-thirds of former foster youth who aged-out, or never found a forever family, have experienced homelessness, been incarcerated, or are dead, says Stern. We age-out over 20,000 youth every year in the U.S., including hundreds in Virginia. These youth die at about 10 times the rate of their peers, she adds.
“Starting a charity is hard, but improving the foster care system is even harder,” says Jacobs, 47, who holds a PhD in nuclear science and was previously a White House Fellow. To create the advanced software, the two women aim to raise $5 million over the next five years to fully fund a national deployment. It will cost about $500,000 to build and operate their first pilot, scheduled for late 2019. They’ve already raised about $200,000, with the software development itself already halfway completed.
Each of the two women is driven forward by a life-changing childhood experience.
For Jacobs, it was the childhood confusion she faced waiting for the school bus every morning outside of her rural Michigan home. Waiting along with her were multiple foster children from the farm down the road. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that these children were living with strangers,” says Jacobs, whose husband, Shawn Carpenter, is advising the charity on the complex technology.
For Stern, the memories are even more personal. “Being separated from my family is the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me,” says Stern, 44, who currently lives in Richmond but owns a home in Arlington. “One week after losing my mother, I was living with a stranger,” she says. Even though the foster family was very kind, she says, she remembers crying every day for the first year. “If I can reduce the trauma that I suffered for others, well, that’s my mission.”
It’s all about the data. This is where Jacobs lives. As a long-time nuclear consultant and government contractor, she’s been a professional data miner for decades. For years, she was a nuclear scientist trying to use data to find illicit nuclear materials floating around the world.
Now, she’s taking that same data-crunching ability and turning it towards a cause for which she’s personally passionate.
“I’m a data person. This is not about wishing and hoping for some random person to show up and adopt someone,” says Jacobs, who was pregnant with her son, Sam, over seven years ago when she got the kernel of the idea for Connect Our Kids from an article about data and foster care in Time magazine. Besides her son, Jacobs also has twin daughters Bonnie and Lucy, 10, who are fifth graders at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
Plans for several local fundraisers for Connect Our Kids already are in motion for 2019. The group is planning to participate in 5K runs in March and August. (Details will be posted on their website.)
Finding permanent families for youth can be extremely difficult, says Jacobs. And the holidays are when many foster children face their greatest emotional challenges.
Perhaps no one understands that better than Stern. Shortly after she got married, her husband asked her all about her family’s Thanksgiving traditions, so they could blend the best of the traditions. That was a particularly painful moment when Stern realized she had no Thanksgiving family traditions. “They died when my mother died,” she says.
Now, she is trying to create new family traditions with her husband and their two-year-old son, Samuel.
Those interested in creating a special Thanksgiving tradition for a foster child — and for themselves, can visit ConnectOurKids.org — and click donate.