Through the storm of COVID, the nonprofit she co-founded has developed new ways to help children
COVID has dealt a blow to an already strained foster care system. The availability of therapy and support services has decreased. Courts have delayed hearings. Abused and neglected children lingered in bad situations. But Becky Santoro and her team at Foster Village Charlotte, a nonprofit that provides support to foster families, were ready to act.
Within six months, they strengthened support groups, held meetings with the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, and doubled the number of early donors. Foster Village secured $50,000 in grants through United Way and the Foundation for the Carolinas COVID-19 Response Fund — money that paid for tutoring, childcare and activities extracurriculars like swimming and art lessons for foster children.
Today, even with the disruption of the pandemic, Foster Village is thriving. Since its inception in 2018, the organization has served more than 1,500 children, provided $250,000 in direct support, including essential items like clothing, blankets, diapers and toys, and organized more than 200 hours of support groups and training sessions and individual sessions. -a meeting of foster parents and therapists. A recent Foster Village survey of more than 100 of its client families found that 75% of caregivers are likely to continue to be foster families in 2022 through the organization’s services. All said they depended on Foster Village to learn how to access resources and navigate the system.
According to Santoro, part of their success comes from Foster Village’s reliance on its five staff members, all of whom have fostered children themselves. Santoro has four children, ages 10, 8, 6 and 4; she adopted the two younger ones. Five years ago, shortly after welcoming his first foster child, Santoro began regularly meeting three other foster parents at a playground. They told him that they lacked resources and felt overwhelmed. Santoro was considering an organization to support foster families, and by the time she welcomed her second foster child, Santoro and the three other parents – Molly Zalewski, Sloan Crawford and Traci Prillaman – had co-founded Foster Village.
As the organization’s program director, Santoro, 38, leads program development, communications and fundraising. Foster Village operates with an annual budget of approximately $350,000, 70% of which comes from individual donations. He occupies a small house in the Oakhurst neighborhood of southeast Charlotte, but Santoro hopes to be able to raise enough money for a new resource center by the end of 2023. A new center would allow for more interactions comfortable between children and caregivers on sensitive and emotionally charged levels. times, like when adoptive children are reunited with their biological family.
Here it is in his own words, edited for clarity and space:
I was raised outside of Detroit in a loving two-parent family with two older sisters. Very early on, I began to see that life was not fair to everyone. My school was much better off than a school 20 minutes from my house, and that didn’t feel right.
I went to the state of Michigan become a special education teacher. That’s where I met my husband, Tony. We graduated and moved to Charlotte in 2007 to teach Title I schools. We taught together at Merry Oaks Elementary for a few years. It wasn’t easy—we were working 80 hours a week—but we loved these children and families so much.
My experience in the classroom had a lot to do with why I became a foster parent. I have had students who were in host families, living with extended family or foster parents. Watching grandparents struggle to become a parent again, or having a conversation with children and not having a clear idea of where they lived or who they lived with…changed me. Tony and I started collecting information about foster families before starting a family.
After Maeve’s birth, Tony started roasting coffee in the garden and selling it to friends and family for fun. This lasted for a few years, until our second daughter, Raeya, was born.
We took the leap. When Raeya was 6 months old, we both left teaching. I took a job at Watershed, working in the children’s program. Meanwhile, I said to Tony, “Let’s do the foster placement.” Looking back, it didn’t seem like a good time to start something new. Tony was starting his business, I had a new job, we had grandchildren. But when I left teaching, part of me wanted to be around children and families in crisis, if only to be a safe person for a short time. I was a new mom of two with a simple life, but I felt distant from thinking about difficult things, and I didn’t like that feeling. Moreover, we knew that life would go on. We would always have an excuse.
So we started foster care classes. Once we did, I couldn’t hear or see what I had seen and heard. We finished classes and home inspections, then got a phone call saying we might start hearing from the kids soon. An hour after this call, we received another call about a child who needed a home. Maeve and Raeya were 4 1/2 and 2 1/2 at the time.
Our first foster child was 1 when we met her. The social worker took me to the hospital where the child was and I met police, doctors and the father – a very out of body experience. I said to the father: “I am a mother of girls. I know you love him. I am here to be an ally. I had a picture of her room on my phone that I showed her. My empathy grew by leaps and bounds in the hospital that day.
I knew very early that I needed a community. I found a small group of Charlotte foster parents on Facebook. A few of us, including Molly, Sloan, and Traci, started dating. We were all saying the same thing: we were drowning and we needed each other.
If you are not sponsored, it can be hard to comprehend all the grief, loss, love, grief and anger that comes with it. All children experience trauma when they enter the foster care system. And people don’t always realize that even if we “commit to it” as foster parents, it’s hard.
After reading and on researching further, I realized there was a trend across our country: foster parents only do this for a short time and then leave. I started following Foster Village from Austin, Texas. I loved their holistic approach of equipping not only the kids but also the foster parents.
I felt bold, so I flew to Austin. I asked the leader of Foster Village if she was considering an affiliate model. At first she said no. But she kept watching us and eventually agreed to let us use her logo and brand. This allowed us to point out something that was already working elsewhere.
Meanwhile, I felt enriched by my relationship with the biological father of my adopted child. I could tell he really liked her. He visited her and brought a new doll every week. We thought her way back to him. But towards the end, we learned that she might need to be adopted. We absolutely wanted to adopt it, but then we were put on hold.
The end of foster care is the most difficult place. You support parents, but you also know you’re next in line. We also found out that our adopted daughter’s biological brother was born and needed a home. We prepared the crib again and told our children. But then, in a court meeting, the judge decided that the baby would live with an aunt and uncle.
We understood, but the very thought of separating the siblings was so difficult and so sad. Nevertheless, we assumed that he had been adopted. So we kept moving forward. We knew we were going to adopt her sister…but while we were gaining a daughter, someone else was losing a daughter. I think sometimes people forget the other side of the story.
In June 2018, we launched Foster Village and opened Tony’s new café. We also found out that our new daughter’s brother, then 16 months old, was ultimately not adopted. We took him into our family and he adapted right away.
Foster Village has taken off like a rocket. I was still working full time, had a new kid, and really wanted to focus my energy on Foster Village. So I created a website, wrote my story, and asked my family and friends to give me 18 months to dedicate myself to Foster Village. I needed $2,500 a month to pay for daycare. Some gave $25 a month, others $100. Truly, the power of a village.
four years in, most remained as donors. Seventy percent of our organization is run by individual donations. The smallest is $10 per month, the largest $500. It’s a natural model for us. We try to show that everyone can have an impact on foster care, not just foster parents.
Day by day, I use my entrepreneurial brain a lot. I see a problem and build a solution. We recently hired a licensed clinical social worker. We have also launched a “before your first placement” group. After four weeks, new foster parents have the opportunity to partner with an experienced foster parent mentor to guide them through their first placement.
My vision has always been for Foster Village to be a safe haven where children can return again and again, a comfortable and dignified place for their families. I would have liked for my (foster) father of the children to have access to a home-as a setting like our current resource center in the Oakhurst neighborhood. We hope to open a larger resource center so we can offer more intentional programming around foster and biological on the way home. That’s the job of Foster Village.