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, CEO of SOS Children’s Villages Illinois (“SOS 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 Illinois.”
Now in its 26th year, SOS 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.
SOS Illinois was founded as one of the first two U.S. outposts of—and in an affiliation agreement with—SOS Kinderdorf International, established in Austria in 1945 to aid WWII orphans. Since its inception with one village in Lockport, Illinois, SOS Illinois has grown to include four sites with more than 50 homes today. There are now three 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. Plus? Casa Tepeyac, a facility offering family-strengthening services to 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 provide all of this care and service, SOS Illinois operates within a $10 million budget. 80 percent of that funding comes from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”). The balance comes from corporate and private donors—donors such as Winnetka’s Bill Forsyth, CEO of Northbrook-based Frontier Partners, and a founder of the New Frontiers Foundation, which was launched in 1996 to provide educational support to disadvantaged Chicago youth.
“I first found out about SOS Illinois in 2004,” says Forsyth. “Their objectives and goals were so closely aligned with what we wanted to do with New Frontiers, we quickly became supporters.”
In the years since, Forsyth says seeing the SOS Illinois staff’s dedication to changing the lives of the foster children in their care, has added perspective to his life.
“I’ve experienced the infectious optimism and outlook the SOS Illinois staff has for these families, the children’s education and their future. [These workers] are truly in the trenches. It’s humbling to play a small role by supporting them. The children they care for have the opportunity to live with their siblings in a loving but structured environment. I’ve seen how the stability the children experience here increases the odds of their success.”
Sibling groups at SOS Illinois usually include five brothers and/or sisters, but each home is licensed to care for up to six children. Children are referred to SOS Illinois by DCFS. The length of time each child stays in 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 Illinois 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,” explains 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 Illinois 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 Illinois 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,” explains McCormick. “Things like laptops upon graduation, special celebrations, and college prep exam support.”
Throughout all, the crucial focus remains on education.
“Education is the key to these children’s futures,” says Forsyth. “The vast majority of these young people are every bit as talented and determined as my own children. The only difference is that my children grew up with more opportunities. In the past 25 years, I’ve been encouraged with the progress I’ve seen—incremental changes that have led to more significant advances.”
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 Villages 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,” McCormick notes. “We are also building a culinary kitchen there that will offer vocational training opportunities. “
The benefits to both kids and community are myriad.
“People need to understand the ripple effect SOS has on Chicago,” sums Forsyth. “SOS isn’t just feeding and clothing people. They’re educating people and instilling confidence. They’re transforming lives.”
McCormick stresses that supporting the continued operation and growth of SOS 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 has the ability to be a foster parent, but there are countless opportunities to help.”
For more information, visit sosillinois.org/giving/ or call 312-704-1320.