Nancy Serpa, president of the Junior League of Rhode Island Inc., has led the organization since June 2013 and holds the post for a two-year term. She also is director of program management at Fidelity Investments and is a certified project management professional. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in finance from Providence College in 1989 and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University in 1998. In April 2013, the League changed its community focus from women and children to the issue of aging out of foster care. Here she discusses why the League made this change and how the program development is evolving.
PBN: The Junior League of Rhode Island last year decided to focus a major portion of its resources on supporting people who “age out” of foster care. Why is this issue of critical importance in Rhode Island?
SERPA: Due to federal and state budget cuts over the past five to seven years, there are fewer resources for youth aging out of foster care. In Rhode Island, roughly 100 youth age out of the foster care system each year with no adoption, reunification or guardianship. These youth have no sense of normalcy or support network that most children have as they grow up in a traditional family environment. As a result, these youth experience high rates of financial instability, low educational attainment, homelessness, hunger, unemployment and poor physical and mental health.
These youth are also far more likely to become teen parents, enter the criminal justice system or enroll in public assistance programs. …
I would like to acknowledge that there are many amazing organizations in Rhode Island that serve this population, such as Foster Forward, Communities for People, etc. The League felt it could supplement those services and fill a void that isn’t fully being served today where these agencies do not have sufficient resources or capacity to fulfill on their own. This issue would offer our League members a variety of volunteer opportunities from direct service to indirect service and advocacy.
If you look back at our League history, we actually have a direct connection to this issue going back to 1973, when the Junior League of Providence (its former name) supported and lobbied for Equal Education for Foster Children.
PBN: What type of volunteer initiatives have you introduced so far?
SERPA: Since June 2013, the League has provided a number of volunteer and training opportunities such as:
Home makeover for two people who have aged out of foster care and have two young children.
Monthly dinners and mentoring discussions with the girls at St. Mary’s Home for Children in North Providence (a long-time community partner).
Thanksgiving baskets, Christmas gifts and Easter baskets to the girls at St. Mary’s, the home makeover couple and other youth aging out of foster care.
Several drives over the year from baby diapers, maternity and professional clothing, to winter coats and Halloween costumes.
As May is National Foster Care month, the League is participating in a free screening of “Ask Us Who We Are,” a documentary about foster care and the search for family. The screenings will be held on May 17 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Cable Car Cinema and May 21 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Cinema World in Lincoln. All are welcome.
Lastly, we have conducted trainings for our League members to deepen our understanding and empathy on the topic. For example, Lisa Guillette, executive director at Foster Forward, provided the League with an overview of the Aging Out Issue and we plan to supplement it over the summer with additional Foster Care 101 training. Just recently, our members received some training on advocacy and how the League can get re-engaged on this front.
PBN: Give a specific example of some way the league has made a difference on this topic in Rhode Island.
SERPA: As mentioned above, the League provided a home makeover for two former foster care youth who are trying to build their own family, with no support, no external family and very little state support because they have since aged out. The League did a thorough cleaning of their apartment and outfitted them with furniture, cookware, kitchen and bath items, linens / towels, baby items, cleaning supplies and even some decorative items.
This is a great example of capacity building, in which this couple can now be more effective parents, as they’ve been provided with safe and clean housing, a sense of pride and stability in their home environment. The couple is working hard, and both are working – they just needed a little extra support to get on their feet.
PBN: What is the long-term strategic impact you hope to have on this issue and what resources are you bringing to bear on it?
SERPA: The League hopes to give these youth mentors and a support system to help build the skills and the self-confidence they need to transition to independence. By doing so, they will be empowered to be successful, stable and productive adults.
From a resource perspective, our League members come from a variety of economic, educational and professional backgrounds and truly care about making a different in these youth’s lives. We also plan to collaborate with key stakeholders from the corporate, non-profit and government sectors. Many Junior Leagues around the country are tackling the aging out issue, so we are able to tap into these additional resources and learn from each other what has worked for them and their challenges along the way. By leveraging our members’ strengths and expanding our network, the League will be able to develop a more effective and sustainable program for Rhode Island.
PBN: This is just one of the League’s areas of focus. What other primary areas does your organization intend to concentrate on in the coming year?
SERPA: In the upcoming year, the League will continue its research, training and volunteer service efforts on the Aging Out of Foster Care issue. We will also kick off our advocacy efforts. Our goal is to narrow our focus, define measurable outcomes that we want to achieve and develop an impactful program that the League members can rally behind.
We will also work on a transition plan with our existing community partners for the past four years – The Amos House Mother Child Reunification Program and The Autism Project. The program development process is not an overnight process – we have to go slow to go fast – and it will continue to evolve as we learn more about the issue and where the League can best serve this population.