Orphan Foundation Brings Students to Capitol Hill

22 Participants Interning in Washington This Summer, Three of Them in Senate Offices

Posted July 10, 2007 at 4:14pm

For the 25,000 children who age out of foster care every year, the prospects for future success often are rather dim — odds are most won’t graduate from high school, let alone attend college.

But some of them are determined to buck this trend, and that’s where the Orphan Foundation of America, which works with 6,800 students across the country, comes in. With the help of the Virginia-based organization, which was founded in 1981, these students have a 68 percent college graduation rate.

This help comes in many forms, including mentoring, scholarships and internship placement. This summer, 22 students in the program have internships in the Washington, D.C., area, and three of them are working in Senate offices on the Hill.

“An internship nowadays in particular — it really opens the door to your first job,” said Eileen McCaffrey, the foundation’s executive director. “You almost have to have one built in for your résumé.”

Students working for Senators said they value the chance to observe the legislative process firsthand. “I’m … realizing how complex the political process really is,” 20-year-old Zach Sandner said of his experience in the office of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

A Missouri native and a student at Moberly Area Community College, Sandner entered foster care at age 16 after emerging from a home where he said there was “a lot of abuse and neglect.” Since then, he has been placed in five different homes.

He currently is living independently but is still receiving some government subsidies, a situation that has become increasingly common since the passage in 1999 of the Foster Care Independence Act, according to McCaffrey.

While moving around so frequently cost him stability, Sandner said it has given him some valuable insights. “Being in many different situations, it’s helped me relate to different cultures and diversity and different kinds of people,” he said.

Shelly King, an intern for Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), entered foster care at age 9. Now 22, she will graduate from North Carolina Wesleyan College in December. “It’s been an awesome experience,” she said of her time in Dole’s office. “I’ve learned so much and it’s a great opportunity to work and learn different things and get that firsthand experience.”

In the years after King’s parents went through a messy divorce, she was placed in five different homes, finally ending up in a stable environment with a loving foster mother at age 12. She stayed there until she was 21. “She really cared about how I felt and … she had that strength that said no matter what you do, keep looking forward and never look back,” she said of her foster mother.

King currently lives independently and will be a resident assistant at her college next semester. She continues to get support from her foster mother, who she said is “still my cheerleader.”

Both Sandner and King were very complimentary of the Senators for whom they work. McCaskill is “very down to earth, very caring [about] what the people have to say,” Sandner said. “She represents the people very well.”

Dole is “an awesome lady,” King said. “She’s very nice, she’s very articulate and she really cares about what the constituents want.”

Members of Congress, in turn, always have been impressed by the interns sponsored by the foundation, McCaffrey said. Still, she noted that no Members are among the ranks of its 750 mentors across the country who work via the Internet to offer guidance to students. “We would love to [have] some Members,” she said.

While the foundation’s 6,800 students have for the most part been success stories, that’s partly because they need to already be accepted or enrolled in a post-secondary program in order to become involved. Also, they represent only a small fraction of the children who are or have been in foster care. According to McCaffrey, an average of 475,000 children — and up to 750,000 — are in foster care at any point in time.

Children usually age out of foster care at 18, but sometimes at 21 or even 23 depending on their local regulations, and when they are included, the number of people affected by foster care soars, according to McCaffrey.

Many of them grow up in the foster care system, a trend that McCaffrey said was never meant to exist. Designed as “a short-term holding pen while solutions were found,” she said the system is “by design a poor parent.”

And though awareness of their plight is growing, a complete understanding of the children in the system may be lacking.

“There’s not enough focus on the needs of kids in foster care. It’s [seen as] somebody else’s problem,” she said.