About The Lab Staff - Meet Patty

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In 2012 I was volunteering as a “Cuddler” at the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent (PICC), which is the facility that cares for newborns who have come into this world either drug exposed or drug addicted. As a volunteer, I was allowed one hour a week to rock the babies, do laundry and assist the staff in any way they needed. I remember sitting there, rocking a baby and thinking, “I have so much more to give than one hour a week!”

I had also noticed women coming to visit the babies and soon found out that they were the foster moms that would soon be taking the little ones home. It wasn’t long before I approached my husband with the wild idea that I wanted to retire from my job as a Financial Manager for a Seattle nonprofit and become a foster parent. He readily agreed and in 2014 we were licensed and began taking in little ones. We are still licensed today and hope to continue for many more years.

Once the “pink cloud” diminished we began to recognize the challenges facing foster parents, social workers, bio families, and the children in care. As children came into our care and I began attending court hearings, I realized how important it was for social workers and foster parents to work together so the court had the information they needed to make the right decision for these vulnerable children.

Until they are capable of speaking for themselves I am committed to speaking for them.

Let me share a little personal history so you better understand what drives me to be involved in change. Both of my parents were deceased by the time I was 9 years old. Although I was never placed in the formal foster care system, I was placed in several different homes of strangers between the age of 9 and 18. The person responsible for the decisions regarding where I would live had absolutely no experience with children, nor did they know me and what my needs were. Consequently, some very bad decisions were made about where I would live and I have spent a lifetime healing from the trauma induced by those decisions and my experiences in those homes. My experience has provided me with the drive to give the children in our care a voice. I don’t want the social workers, CASA workers, or the courts making lifelong decisions that will impact our children for the rest of their lives without hearing from the children through my voice. Until they are capable of speaking for themselves I am committed to speaking for them.

Fortunately, I can see the big picture and know that the problems we face are not the responsibility of just one of the above mentioned entities. We are one big organism that needs to work together collaboratively to find solutions that really work for all of us as a whole. Personally, I could not simply stand by and hope for change, I needed to be someone who actually picks up the tools and works for change. Initially, I was frustrated because I didn’t know where to turn or who would be willing to partner with me to work with this desire to create change. And then, in September of 2016 I got a call from Shannon Mead asking me if I would like to join her in the formation of The Foster Innovation Lab. Everything Shannon said that day convinced me that I had found my team. And, along with Shannon, Lori and Mackenzie we have begun the work.

The tools I bring to this effort come from more than 25 years of financial management and accounting. I’ve provided accounting services, complex budget management, and grant compliance at the federal, state and private levels, and have spent the last seven years working in the nonprofit sector. I am grateful for this professional experience as it has provided me with the ability to use the tools of data analysis, strategic planning, problem solving, relationship building and collaboration as a means for initiating change for the better in our current foster care system.

About the Lab Staff - Meet Shannon

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I’ve spent over a decade working with a wide range of companies on a wide range of challenges - everything from small businesses trying to hone their messaging to Fortune-500s trying to hone their data strategy. Industries ranging from florists, to consumer electronics, to aerospace manufacturing. My resume includes words like strategic consulting and organizational development, but what I like to think all of that really means is that I’m very good at finding the small paths that lead us through complex problems.

When I became a foster parent, I was working at a fast-growing data consulting firm. I spent my days working with really smart companies to serve their customers using tech and data. Which made my transition into the foster care system even harder. As we began to encounter obstacle after obstacle, I knew that it didn’t have to be this way. To spend my days using processes and technology that could help, and then go home and see the impact this system was having on my kids created a sense of whiplash.

And anyone who has been around me is probably sick of hearing me say that if you can’t be creative and fail, nothing will change.

So I began advocating for change. I represented Region 2 South on the 1624 board for two years, where I spent countless hours collecting data, meeting with stakeholders, and trying to pursue solutions. And the more I listened, the more I understood how tangled and tricky some of these problems were. Most importantly, I saw that not only are the challenges complex, but the existing culture of the Washington foster care system was preventing change. This system if full of amazing people that are doing everything they can to take good care of these kids, but overall, a culture of fear and risk-aversion makes it hard to try new things or be creative. And anyone who has been around me is probably sick of hearing me say that if you can’t be creative and fail, nothing will change.

In all honesty, it was exhausting. I was considering walking away when I was invited to sit on a panel at the White House Hackathon in 2016. The entire event was encouraging and galvanizing, and as I sat on the panel discussing the private sector solutions that could impact public sector problems, I began to think about a new way to advocate. How can we show, instead of tell? How could we create a space that was energizing and creative, a place that would attract others who also want to pursue change?

A few months later, The Lab was born. And yet again, I’m blessed to be working alongside incredibly smart and fun people. We are doing everything we can to make a difference, because we passionately believe that these kids and these families deserve better. We want a system that helps when help is needed, and those who work within it don’t leave broken and exhausted.

I have adopted three amazing kids and although I cannot change the experiences that they have had, I really hope that we can make a difference for the 9,000 that are currently in Washington state foster care.

My Booty vs. My Pants

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One reason that we often get side-eye* is that we advocate taking small steps towards fixing the problems within foster care. And we understand the side-eye - the problems feel huge, and big problems need big changes.

But allow me to show how small steps can add up by explaining another problem I have: My Booty Versus My Pants.

You see, my pants are quite tight these days. It’s been a stressful year, I spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen, and I like chips. And beer.

And chips with beer.

There are many, many ways that I can fix my problem. I could train for a half-marathon. I could do Whole 30. I could do a juice cleanse. I could swear off all chips and beer. Each of these would definitely help.

Consider All of the Factors

But let’s consider all of the factors. I’m an adoptive mom, in grad school, and running a non-profit. Life is stressful, time and budget are limited, and at the end of the day, I like chips. So each of those solutions would definitely help, but given the circumstance, I have a really low chance of following through.

What if we took an iterative approach to my problem? This means that we clarify the problem, come up with some potential solutions, and then run a small experiment. We learn from each little experiment, then try again (aka iterate).

Above All, Build Hope and Momentum 

And what is really important is that we start with something that will actually happen, something easy and attainable. What if I spend one week drinking a full 12 ounces of water before eating each meal? Easy enough - it’s free, easy to integrate into busy days, and is more about adding something than limiting something.

And as any of us who have tried to change a habit know, sometimes momentum and hope are the most important things.

By doing something attainable for a short period of time, I’m able to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and then shift my habits accordingly. At the end of one week, I can add another small shift to my habits - progressively building momentum and hope. And as any of us who have tried to change a habit know, sometimes momentum and hope are the most important things.

Weren't We Talking About Foster Care?

Just like my daily habits have led to my tight pants, the problems within foster care are a combination of some big problems and hundreds of tiny problems that have compounded over the years. Those tiny problems have become habit and culture - and they cannot change overnight. So while we are beyond thrilled at the big changes that are coming from the new Department of Children, Youth, and Families, we are also very aware the big changes need to be combined with hundreds of other small iterations.

Hence why we are focused small.

Now let’s go drink some water.


 

* Side-eye: The sideways glance you give to someone that is bothering you. Such as when a tailgater finally swerves around and passes you. Or someone tries to take my chips.

About The Lab Staff - Meet Lori

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My name is Lori Santo. I am a city government employee, wife of 18 years to Brad, and mom to two amazing (and sometimes maddening) kiddos. Some days I feel like I am a well-oiled machine and rocking it in the working mom department; working a full day before running my kids to various appointments or classes and then running home to make a nutritious dinner. But most others, I feel like I’m more of an apology machine - apologizing to my boss for having to leave early for a child’s appointment, apologizing to daycare for forgetting to bring some items for an art project, and apologizing to my kids for serving them mac and cheese yet again. Just kidding! I have never had to apologize to my kids for serving them mac and cheese.  

One thing I have always been sure of is that I am supposed to help others. We decided to become foster parents because we wanted to help children and learned of the great need in our state’s foster care system after attending a foster care orientation.  Maybe like you, we took our training with stars in our eyes and felt we were prepared for anything. We thought the hardest part of fostering would be dealing with children with difficult behaviors in our home, we had no idea that dealing with the system would be the most challenging aspect of fostering.  

It wasn’t long before we felt completely helpless navigating this system and advocating for the children. We had some amazing social workers, and some not-so-amazing. We had positive experiences, and some horrifying ones. Our license expiration coincided with the adoption process of our youngest, so with some relief, but mostly a heavy heart, we let our license expire to concentrate on our adoption process. I was determined to continue to help foster children in some capacity though, and not long after our licensed closed, I was introduced to the other amazing women of The Foster Innovation Lab.

Both at work and as part of The Lab, I am drawn towards team-building and solution-identification, and love the challenge of making things just a little better each day.

Working within the government means that I often witness firsthand systems and processes that are not working as they were intended. I currently work with several different process improvement teams at my job, and I enjoy the cycle of identifying areas for improvement and then brainstorming solutions. Both at work and as part of The Lab, I am drawn towards team-building and solution-identification, and love the challenge of making things just a little better each day.  I am so excited about what we have accomplished so far at The Lab and cannot wait to see what we have yet to do.  The possibilities are limitless, and I hope you’ll join us!

About the Lab Staff - Meet Mackenzie

I'm Mackenzie Ellis, a co-founder of The Lab, an elementary reading intervention teacher, a mom to our three kids (8, 6, and 3), and a wife to my high school sweetheart. I run on coffee, don't believe breakfast should be a real thing, and always have a house project in the works. Maybe similar to you, I've never had an experience in life that has been quite as humbling or as fun as parenting. 

With three kids, life is pretty much anything but cool, calm, and collected. Most days are full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, finding my three year old's shoes, and reminding my kids to brush their teeth and change their underwear. Sound familiar? 

Being part of The Lab came out of a desire to be involved in foster care advocacy after being a teacher for nearly a decade, a foster parent for 5 years, and completing my Master's thesis on youth emancipation from foster care in December. Like most families involved with the foster care system, we have experienced challenges with visitation, timelines, many social worker changes, and delayed trials. Despite the challenges, I am committed to bringing about opportunities for productive and respectful conversations that contribute to change.

Why Do We Do What We Do? Why Do You?

A few weeks ago my daughter was invited to a birthday party for Alicia, a little girl in her daycare class.  Alicia is also in my daughter’s weekend dance class.  Every week, these girls show up to the dance studio, looking ridiculously adorable in their pale pink tights and pink leotards, my daughter with her thin ponytail pulled into some semblance of a bun, Alicia’s pulled into a big poofy ball of beautiful dark brown curls on the top of her head. These girls run towards each other and scream when they see each other, hugging and then they run around the lobby holding hands and giggling.  Until it is time to go into the dance studio.  Then Alicia runs back to lobby crying, “please don’t go, daddy! Please don’t leave me!” holding his leg for dear life. Every week, he sits down on the floor with her, envelopes her into his arms and calms her, letting her know she is safe and just going to dance class and he will be waiting for her as soon as she comes out that door.  Just like any good parent would do. Only he is not her parent.  He is her foster dad. And aside from the color of their skin, you would never know that they were not related. 

We arrive at the birthday party which is at a bouncy house place. A room is set aside for the birthday boy and girl with snacks and pizza and the cutest cake ever. This couple obviously wanted to give these kids the best birthday party. Kids were running around everywhere laughing and bouncing. My daughter and Alicia found each other and grabbed hands, running off together to find the best bouncy house while adults mingled around.  Shortly after we arrived, Alicia’s little brother, Michah, fell and began to cry. I watched as his foster mom stopped mid conversation as she heard a cry in that loud, chaotic place.  She excused herself and ran off, looking for where the cry was coming from. When she found her foster son, she scooped him up as tears were streaming down his cheeks. She looked at where he hurt himself and gave it a kiss. She put her forehead to his, looking into his eyes and whispered words of reassurance to him. No one else existed in that room.

Another parent leaned over and said to me, ‘You know, I could never foster. I would get too attached.  I would never be able to survive giving them back.’

I stared at them, unable to look away. I wished that everyone else could see what I was looking at. That they could really understand the amazing and complete love that total strangers are giving children with no biological connection to themselves. That they could see that these people are a very rare breed, taking in a stranger’s children and giving them reassurance, comfort, and unconditional love, even when they may not be so easy to love. These children are dressed as well as their peers, they are well fed, they are getting an amazing birthday party that they will probably always remember, and this couple has no ties to these children whatsoever. They may have to hand them back to a biological parent or a relative, or a complete stranger one day with no say, and maybe no time to prepare. But they put their whole heart into it anyway, because they know that’s what these children deserve.  Even if it means their whole heart may be broken.

Another parent leaned over and said to me, “You know, I could never foster. I would get too attached. I would never be able to survive giving them back.” I know this is a seemingly innocent comment that grates on the nerves of every foster parent I’ve talked to.  The person probably means well but doesn’t realize they are suggesting that the foster parent does not get too attached or has no feelings about handing a child in their care over. I turned to the woman and said “You know, I think that I could never survive my husband dying. Yet people do. Every single day, people do.” 

She looked at me surprised and she said, “Maybe.  But when you choose to foster, you are choosing to have your heart broken. Why would anyone choose that?” I turned and looked at Michah, now scampering happily off to find his friends while his foster mom looked on with a proud smile on her face before I responded to her, “how can people think that protecting their own emotions is more important than protecting these innocent and precious children?”

All of us are called to help.

I did not make a friend there that day, and I can guarantee you that that woman did not go to her nearest licensing agency to sign up to be a foster parent, but I cannot keep quiet about one thing I feel passionately about. All of us are called to help. We are not meant to live an easy life sipping our $5 Starbucks while we lament that we don’t have the time/energy/money/insert excuse here, to help.  We become so wrapped up in our own busy lives, shuttling our kids to far too many activities and running from commitment to commitment. We wait for someone else to bring about change that is needed for the hungry, the homeless, the mentally ill, the disabled, the veterans, the foster children. We feel for them, we may say our hearts break for them, but there is nothing that we can do to help. But we have a responsibility to help those who aren’t as fortunate as us. Because isn’t it what you would want if you were them? Isn’t that what you want your kids to learn?  

This is why.

My friends and family often wonder why I volunteer my time with the Lab and why we are doing what we are doing. This is why. We want to begin conversations towards change. When we only look inside our own little circles, community is lost. It takes a village and it's time to rebuild ours. We want to take on foster care, to make the system work a little better so there are not so many broken hearts among foster families, foster children, biological parents, social workers, attorneys, and CASA's.

This is our passion, what is yours? You don't have to become a foster parent.  You can donate toys, make a meal for a sick neighbor, volunteer with a charity, send a postcard of encouragement to a deployed soldier.  If every single one of us could choose one thing to do for someone else, even if it's small, couldn't we bring about some change to our world?  Will you join us?

-Lori                                                                    

Team Member of The Foster Innovation Lab

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.  We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  We are the change that we seek.” -Barrack Obama

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.  We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  We are the change that we seek.”

-Barrack Obama