November is National Adoption Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness about the shortage of adoptive families for children in foster care. There are over 122,00 children who are at risk of aging out of the foster care system without being adopted. And while the Covid-19 pandemic has been challenging for all of us, children in foster care have been among the hardest hit. Foster families and group homes are struggling to adapt to remote learning, lacking internet access and technology, meaning children never log in to class or have to share devices among several family members. Social workers are finding it harder to place children in foster families, as more parents are out of work and hesitant to take in another child.
When foster children don’t have access to educational opportunities and strong family support, all of society suffers. In 2019, more than 71,000 young people aged out of foster care without being adopted. Studies show that of those who age out of foster care, 40% experience homelessness, 50% are unemployed at age 24, and 25% experience post-traumatic stress. Educational stability and a strong adult mentor can significantly improve these outcomes.
Manhattan Institute Civil Society Award winners, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-DMC and Emmy Award-winning casting director Sheila Jaffe understood this. Both adoptees, they knew were able to achieve success in life because they were adopted by loving parents who gave them a “forever home.” That’s why in 2006, after bonding over their own adoption stories, they decided to found The Felix Organization, a nonprofit that serves and empowers foster children in the New York and Los Angeles areas through five summer camp programs and year-round opportunities and activities.
Foster children often do not have adults in their lives whom they can trust or rely on. Additionally, many of the children who participate in Felix’s programs live in New York City’s South Bronx, which according to the 2010 census is the poorest congressional district in the nation, with 49% of children living below the poverty line. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, this was only exacerbated. In July 2020, the unemployment rate in the Bronx was 24.7%, the highest since the Great Depression. With hundreds of volunteers and philanthropic support, The Felix Organization provides these children with strong role models, as well as the stability, educational resources, and access to extracurricular activities they often lack.
In March, when New York was dealing with the first wave of the pandemic, Amanda Ricken Simonetta, The Felix Organization’s executive director was quick to respond, calling their partner organizations to ask what the children needed. One of Felix’s partner organizations is Haven Academy, a school located in the Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood. This year has been one of the worst times in the past several decades for the neighborhood, not only because of the virus itself, but also the ensuing economic downturn. The Felix Organization was able to quickly mobilize, pivot, and respond to the challenges in the community.
For example, when a school leader shared with Amanda that students at Haven Academy—many of them immigrants who weren’t eligible for government support—were struggling with food insecurity, Felix started an emergency relief fund and raised nearly $25,000 in funds and in-kind donations. As a private organization, they were able to quickly put funds towards the most urgent problems, whether that meant payments for groceries and other essential items, providing laptops for students, or even directly paying some phone and internet bills so that kids could attend school remotely. For children living in group homes, Felix provided laptops, arts and crafts, board games, and other activities to keep them engaged.
The Felix Organization continues to find creative ways to meet the needs of their community. They fill in the gaps for children in the foster care system in countless ways and provide what the government never could: personal loving support and a vibrant community. This is especially important around the holidays, which can be one of the most difficult times of the year for foster children. What should be a time for families to come together and celebrate, can bring back painful memories of past traumas and broken families for these children. This is why The Felix Organization started several initiatives and traditions around the holidays for their youth.
One of the hallmark traditions is a big Thanksgiving feast at Hill Country Barbeque in New York City, provided completely free of charge by the restaurant. Complete with a DJ, dancing, face painting, and other activities, this event is a time for more than 100 foster youth to reunite with friends from Felix’s camps and the counselors who’ve made an impact in their lives; or, in other words, to gather with those who, for many of the children, have become their family. With restaurants suffering from revenue shortfalls this year, The Felix Organization decided to purchase 100 Thanksgiving meals from Hill Country Barbeque, each one including a turkey, cranberries, stuffing, mac & cheese, and two pies to feed a family of four. The restaurant will distribute them to the children next Sunday, not only putting food on the table, but providing an opportunity to celebrate.
Another of The Felix Organization’s holiday initiatives is their Secret Santa gift card drive to provide for those, especially teens and those living in group homes, who would normally end up with nothing for Christmas. While there are many programs for younger children, older teens in foster care are often neglected, and they are also the ones most likely to age out of the foster care system without a permanent home or family. In past years, The Felix Organization has raised about $30,000 to provide gift cards for these young people around the holidays, and their social workers can attest first hand to the huge difference it makes in the lives of the teens, who experience the joy of knowing that someone cares about them.
This year, the holidays will look different. Some are mourning the loss of loved ones. Others wish they could come together to celebrate but can only do so virtually. But for those children who are served by The Felix Organization, the holidays will be a bit brighter thanks to the work of volunteers and generous philanthropic support. As one camper put it, “[Felix] was the first place where I can actually feel myself opening up to people and letting people in, because I felt like I was just abruptly put in the foster care system. It just sparked something in me and I was like, this is my family. This is my home.” This sentiment is no doubt shared by so many of the more than 10,000 foster care children who have participated in Felix’s programs.
To support The Felix Organization, visit their site here: https://www.thefelixorganization.org/donate
Alexandra Cohill is a project manager for Civil Society at the Manhattan Institute.
The Manhattan Institute's Tocqueville Project celebrates and promotes America’s long tradition of civil-society organizations and leaders who are addressing a significant social challenge in their community. With the help of volunteers and private philanthropy, these individuals strengthen our communities and keep our social fabric from fraying. For more information on MI's Civil Society Awards and past winners, visit www.civilsocietyawards.com.
Photo courtesy of The Felix Organization