Former Foster Youth Now Mentors Younger Peers on Capitol Hill

On Capitol Hill, traditional summer softball leagues allow staffers to de-stress and network with colleagues.

For 26-year-old Derrick Riggins, a member of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s prestigious Foster Youth Internship Program during the summer of 2011, the league was a novel concept.

“At the time, we really didn’t understand the importance of [the clothes],” said Riggins. “But it was a really unique gift because I had the opportunity to play on my congressional softball team.”

That was the first year the Congressional Coalition had partnered with the Sara Start Fund, a non-profit that works to help former foster youth transition to professional success. That year, the fund gave Riggins and his Foster Youth Internship Program peers athletic gear, which made it possible for him to play in those all important softball games. Now 30, and the Communications Director for Youth for Tomorrow, Riggins returned this summer to mentor youth through the Sara Start Fund.

Riggins greeting mentor and Capitol Hill aide Zephranie Buetow during the Culture Close-Up workshop at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.
Riggins greeting mentor and Capitol Hill aide Zephranie Buetow during the Culture Close-Up workshop at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Photo credit: Zack Marshall.

Unlike the 14 other interns in his program in 2011, Riggins already had a Master’s of Social Work from Florida State University.

It was his first time working in D.C., where he interned for Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who then chaired the Senate Committee on Finance.

Riggins had previously worked as an advocate at Foster Youth Shine in Florida after he obtained his Master’s degree, but he said his job there didn’t prepare him for working in D.C.

Unpreparedness was a problem among many of the program’s interns, said Lindsay Ellenbogen*, founder of the Sara Start Fund and adjunct professor at George Washington University. Riggins’ class in 2011 was the first that Ellenbogen’s fund worked with.

Ellenbogen worked for Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) at the time, who served on the advisory board of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Landrieu had members from the Foster Youth Internship working in her office. There, Ellenbogen was assigned to coordinate the youth.

She said that the program’s interns worked hard, but they struggled with the working culture of Capitol Hill.

“What I’d seen was young adults very serious about having a future,” Ellenbogen said. “They had the same hopes and dreams as others not in foster care. I then came to learn about some of their circumstances.”

She said she learned “there is no safety net, there is no room for a mistake, there is no parent to clean up the mess” for foster youth. After that, Ellenbogen founded the Sara Start Fund.

The non-profit partnered with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute to help guide youth in its internship program.

The first year of the Sara Start Fund, Ellenbogen mentored all of the program’s youth. She organized events like “Dress for Success,” where the interns learned about how to dress professionally and fit into their work environments.

“Dress for Success” provided the youth with the opportunity to learn about creating a business casual wardrobe appropriate for their internships in D.C. The Fund provided them with a lesson on work attire and gave each youth a $500 clothing stipend. It partnered with Macy’s, which gave youth discounts and personal shoppers. The event was one of Riggins’ favorites.

Ellenbogen said that these events, which introduce youth to local businesses and people, build their social capital. “We serve as a bridge to the community,” she said.

The Sara Start Fund now has 12 mentors, to match the number of this year’s interns.

Riggins, once a mentee of the Sara Start Fund, has returned as mentor for the first time.

Mentors are all selected for their professional achievements. They are matched with mentees depending on their similarities and career interests. Each mentor spends the summer advising their mentee and must correspond with them for at least a year after. Ellenbogen said most of those friendships last longer than that.

While the Foster Youth Internship Program deals exclusively with older youth, those between 18 and 24, the Sara Start Fund also caters to another age group. The fund is currently running a budding pilot program in D.C. for youth ages 16 to 18, teaching them professional skills.

The program for older youth has expanded as well. Their event, “Resumania,” brought the youth and their mentors together to help mentees create stronger resumés and discuss their future plans.

Riggins was in foster care during high school. His foster family, the Harrises, encouraged him to go to college. They had a son Riggins’ age, and they all visited schools together. Riggins was able to graduate high school and obtain his bachelor’s degree, something only 10 percent of foster youth are able to do, according to a report published by the National Working Group on Foster Care Education last year.

When Riggins turned 18, the state stopped providing foster care services to him, which meant discontinuing payments to his foster parents and social worker services to him.

“Aging out of the child welfare system was a failure on the systems’ part,” Riggins said. “I kind of gave up on having a family.”

Then he met Susan Stockham, an adoption attorney in Florida. They were both keynote speakers at an event where Riggins heard Stockham say that all “kids deserve forever families.”

The two were introduced, and as their relationship continued, Riggins said she asked to adopt him. At first, Riggins said he was wary. Stockham was persistent, and Riggins eventually opened up to her. The adoption was finalized when he was 24.

He now calls Stockham “Mom.”

It was through her that Riggins discovered the D.C. internship program. Stockham had received the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s 2004 Angels in Adoption Award and knew about its Foster Youth Internship Program.

He is the first of the Sara Start Fund alumnus to return as a mentor.

Riggins praised the Sara Start Fund and Ellenbogen’s continued contributions to it. He stressed the eagerness of the youth, who he said are excited to be a part of the program.

As a mentor, he said he still likes the same sessions he did as a mentee: the annual trip to a modern art museum and “Dress for Success.” Riggins also said he enjoys sessions started more recently, such as Resumania.

Riggins said he continues to become a better person.

“I’m really still growing, even though I’m a mentor,” Riggins said.

*Lindsay Ellenbogen currently serves on the Board of Directors for Fostering Media Connections, The Chronicle of Social Change’s parent organization.

Meiling Bedard is a journalism intern for The Chronicle of Social Change and a rising junior at Boston University.

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Meiling Bedard
About Meiling Bedard 14 Articles
Meiling is a journalism intern for The Chronicle of Social Change and a junior at Boston University.