There are currently more than 600,000 children in the United States foster care system. Of those children, more than three quarters have been separated from their siblings, to be reunited only sporadically throughout their childhoods, if at all. But what if that separation didn’t have to happen? What if brothers and sisters could stay together, foster parented in one home and one community until ready to transition to adoption or independence in the outside world?
“What if, indeed?” asks Tim McCormick, Chief Executive Office of SOS Children’s Villages Illinois. “Studies show that when siblings stay together they heal, thrive, and flourish,” says McCormick. “Keeping siblings together in an individual home in the care of a full-time, professional foster parent, supported by a community of other caring individuals is the core of what we do at SOS Children’s Villages Illinois.”
Now in its 26th year, SOS Children’s Villages Illinois was the first self-funded SOS organization in the United States, operating as its own 501(c)(3) since 1993, and is still setting precedents. “We have a 100 percent high school graduation rate, compared with a 48 percent graduation rate in the traditional foster care system,” says McCormick.
On Wednesday, May 30, a group of celebrity Luminaries (including Christian Bale and Gloria Steinem) will come together for “Dining & Conversation” at Millennium Park, an evening to support the work that SOS Children’s Villages Illinois does.
Founded in Lockport, Illinois as one of the first U.S. outposts of—and in an affiliation agreement with SOS Kinderdorf International, established in Austria in 1945 to aid World War II orphans—SOS Illinois has grown to include four sites with more than 50 homes today. There are now three SOS Villages in three communities—one with 18 homes in Lockport, Illinois; one with 19 homes in the Auburn Gresham/Englewood neighborhood of Chicago; and one with 14 homes in the Roosevelt Square Community of Chicago. Sites also include Casa Tepeyac—a facility offering family-strengthening services Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.
This year, more than 500 children will receive care and nurturing from this network, either as foster children living in one of the homes, or through the Village’s in-home family services. To make all this care and service possible, SOS Illinois operates within a $10 million budget. Eighty percent of that funding comes from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The balance comes from private and corporate donors such as Burr Ridge’s Jim Wolfe, chairman and CEO of Chicago-based Knight Partners, LLC—an engineering firm specializing in architectural, construction, redevelopment, and program management services.
“I found out about SOS Children’s Villages from a friend who was serving on the SOS board,” says Wolfe. “Historically, my company had been involved in supporting a lot of Chicago-area organizations in various ways, but I felt that by consolidating our efforts and support, we could make a bigger impact, so I had been researching how to do that.”
Attending an information dinner at SOS, meeting some of the foster children in the program and learning about the organization’s structure and purpose, made a deep impression on Wolfe “I remember about half way through the dinner, I said, “OK, just tell me what you need. I’m on board.”
Wolfe has served as chairman of the finance committee at SOS for four years now, and is a big believer in the SOS care model.
“Keeping the siblings together, having a full-time foster parent living with them in a home environment for the length of time they need, not having them shuttled through a sequence of different foster homes—it all works. It takes a tremendous amount of money to do this, but societally, it has tremendous payback: We are able to stabilize and educate these kids so that despite a difficult beginning, they stay in school, enter society, and give back.
Sibling groups at SOS Villages usually include five brothers and/or sisters, but each home is licensed to care for up to six children. Children are referred to SOS by DCFS. The length of time each child stays at a Village is highly individualized. This is partially predicated upon age, and, on whether children are to be reconnected with biological family members, or, adopted. On average, children live at SOS for 2 ½ to 3 years. About 1/3 are either adopted or reunited with family. Another 1/3 stay until old enough to establish independence.
“We have taken in children as young as 2-days-old, on up to 21-years-old,” says McCormick.
To support the growth and healing of its children, each Village offers comprehensive services including individual and group counseling and mentoring. SOS Illinois has a staff of 147 full- and part time workers. This includes foster parents (one for each home), caseworkers, clinical therapists, and direct-care support staff. Foster parents are carefully vetted, says McCormick, to ensure the best-possible outcomes, adding that it normally takes about 200 interactions to find the right person.
In addition to providing a stable home environment SOS seeks to enhance the lives of its children with field trips, cultural and social events. These often happen through the generous support of donors.
“SOS is fortunate to have a group we call Dream Makers, motivated individuals who work to find the appropriate resources to enrich these children’s lives,” says McCormick. “Things like laptops upon graduation, special parties, celebrations, supporting college prep exams.”
Throughout all, the crucial focus remains on education. One new effort here—SOS Illinois is in the middle of a campaign to build a large community center at 13th and Blue Island as part of the Roosevelt Square Village.
“From the start, every one of our Village has been designed to become part of the community it serves,” says McCormick. “The new center will focus on tutoring, educational support and training for children and families both in the Village and in Roosevelt Square,” says McCormick. “We are also building a culinary kitchen there that will offer vocational training opportunities.”
Looking at challenges SOS faces, Wolfe says two of the biggest are finding qualified foster parents, and the sheer magnitude of financing the operation. But the benefits to both kids and community are myriad. McCormick stresses that supporting the continued operation and growth of SOS Children’s Villages Illinois is truly customizable.
“Mentoring, tutoring, hosting a special event for the kids, becoming a Dream Maker … it’s really limitless,” says McCormick. “Not everyone can be a foster parent, but there are countless opportunities to help.”
For example, Jim’s wife and artist Nancy Sundstrom Wolfe, used her skills to run a program styled as a summer art camp for kids at SOS. “We did all kinds of things,” she smiles, “some one day projects, some four-day projects. In the beginning, some of the kids would just peep in the door, too shy to come in.” Wolfe recalls. “But after a few weeks, the trust was there and they really joined in.”
“The best thing you can do is to just get to know SOS,” sums Jim. “Visit the facility in Lockport—just minutes from Hinsdale. Volunteer for an event. Attend a dinner. Just meeting the staff and seeing how SOS works, ideas will come to you of the best ways you are equipped to help.”
For more information about SOS Children’s Village, visit sosillinois.org/giving/ or call 312-704-1320.