Liz Squibb knows how to help foster children - she was one herself

Working at the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative she helps foster children make the transition to adulthood.

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    LIz Squibb (far left) helps children who grow up in foster care prepare for life on their own. 'Finding employment is hard enough at this time for young people, let alone children from foster care,' she says.
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A car is a possession many people probably take for granted.

But for many former foster children, it’s a necessity that’s often out of their reach, says Liz Squibb, the senior associate director for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

“Our young people are saying to us, 'I needed the car to get to school, I needed the car to get to work,” Ms. Squibb says.

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Saving for a big purchase, such as a car, isn't easy for teens and young adults. But as part of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, based in St. Louis, former foster children can sign up for the Opportunity Passport program, which allows them to open a matched savings account. For every dollar the youth deposits, the initiative matches it.

“We'll increase the amount of opportunity a young person has to save – to participate in mainstream banking,” Squibb says of the program.

Though a car was the most popular purchase in the Opportunity Passport program, participants also often use the funds to pay for rent or education costs, according to data published by the initiative in 2009.

While Opportunity Passport is one of its main programs, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative addresses many other challenges facing former foster children. Founded in 2001 and named after the founder of United Parcel Service, the initiative has a long-term goal for every former foster child: that as they leave foster care they successfully move into adulthood.

The initiative  works with organizations and agencies in 15 states that serve children in foster care. It focuses its work on young adults between the ages of 14 and 25 who are leaving their foster homes and facing life on their own.

Squibb joined the initiative in 2001. She was inspired to do this kind of work after living as a foster child in a home where her foster parents took in many other children.

“It was me growing up with other kids who didn't look like me, who had sometimes worse problems than me,” she says. “It was second nature to me to help those who couldn't help themselves.”

One of the biggest goals of the initiative is to ensure that foster children attend school, Squibb says. “They're challenged because they're moving around a lot.”

For many former foster children, the biggest problem is getting a job, she says. “Finding employment is hard enough at this time for young people, let alone children from foster care.”

In addition to its matching funds program, Opportunity Passport also allows participants to open a debit account and gives them “door openers.” These can vary from community to community but often consist of being introduced to staff members at the bank or other young adults in the Opportunity Passport program, Squibb says. The aim is for former foster children who may feel alone to establish connections.

Opportunity Passport is funded by various foundations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which was established by Annie’s son, Jim Casey. It is the Initiative’s lead funder.

[Editor's note: The original version of the previous paragraph misstated the relationship between Jim Casey and Annie Casey. Jim Casey is Annie Casey's son.]

Money for Opportunity Passport also comes from grants and donations, though the organization does not take unsolicited grants, Squibb says.

Current and former foster children learn about Opportunity Passport through the initiative’s partner organizations. If a young adult chooses to participate, he or she will be enrolled in a financial literacy class. Participants can begin their matched savings account once they’ve presented the local partner organization with a clear goal that shows how they will use their funds.

Organizations that have partnered with the Initiative include the Goodwill Industries of North Carolina and EPIC ’Ohana in Honolulu, which works to make connections between local families with foster children.

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative has many other long-term goals, including ensuring that every foster child who leaves the system has built lasting relationships.

“Permanence is a huge issue,” Squibb says. “We want every child to leave foster care with an adult they can count on for a lifetime.”

The Initiative also seeks to help states examine their local foster-care programs for problems that need addressing.

Building a relationship with state governments isn’t always easy, she concedes. “It's often a touchy subject to say, 'We can help you with your foster care,’ ” Squibb says.

The initiative is looking to expand into more states in the future, she says. Its goals are far from being accomplished.

“This is not easy, quick work,” Squibb says.

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