Serita Cox, executive director and co-founder of iFoster along with her husband Reid Cox, recently chatted with The Shelby Report about the organization, its beginnings and its many accomplishments in just a few short years. She also speaks to how the grocery and foodservice industries helped iFoster create its growing jobs/hiring program.
“…The grocery industry stepped up to help our youth,” she said. “Nobody else is. I think that’s a huge recognition, because there’s financial risk to do that.”
Learn more about iFoster and its programs below in a special Q&A session with Cox.
Q: Tell us about the roots of iFoster and the jobs program.
When we were approached by the grocery industry to potentially create a jobs program that would be a pipeline of foster youth into the grocery industry, we of course looked to see who had done it previously, what best-in-class programs were out there for employment for foster youth. Annie E. Casey, a foundation on the East Coast, had a program that ran for about eight years called First Jobs Academy, and it was for 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds principally in foster care in Maine, and their principal employer was Hannaford Bros. Our understanding is that this employment program worked very well, had great results, and Annie E. Casey was nice enough to give us their curriculum as a starting point. Their program officers were advisors to us to help us design our program model. We got input through them about what Hannaford liked and didn’t like, so we didn’t create this out of thin air. We did our due diligence and reached out to programs that have had success in the past, so we stepped on the shoulders of giants.
Q: You didn’t begin in the nonprofit sector, did you?
My background is from the corporate world. I have an MBA and an undergraduate (degree) in biochemistry/biotechnology. I worked as a strategy consultant for years and then transitioned and headed up an e-business for 3Com Corp. It was the combination of those two things—understanding technology and the internet and having the mindset of a strategy consultant—that I think really helped formulate iFoster.
When I moved into the nonprofit sector, I did it via a strategy consulting firm and had the opportunity to get a good understanding of the child welfare juvenile justice system here in the U.S. at kind of a macro, 60,000-foot level. By seeing it at that level and having the lens of technology, the concept of iFoster was created. Both my husband and I have a background in technology. He has more of the business development/mergers and acquisitions bent, and what we saw in the child welfare sector was a hugely fragmented system, and the one thing the internet is great at is creating virtual communities where none existed. That is the essence of iFoster—if you can take a fragmented system, create a virtual community, then you have a pipeline to be able to push whatever you want into that community. For us, it was taking a look at the deficits of resources that existed in child welfare and coming up with a bridge, a channel, to take resources from outside that community and push that into the community via an online, virtual community, virtual system, which is the iFoster portal. We started with concrete goods, the easiest thing possible, and looked at what were the deficits in child welfare. Child welfare is good at safety and security; that’s their purpose. But those “thriving” resources that usually sit outside child welfare, whether it’s tutoring, access to technology, computers or job opportunities, they aren’t nascent within the system. And that’s where we come in; we are that bridge from the outside world into the inside world.
Q: What are the numbers with iFoster youth?
On any given day there are 400,000 kids with an open CPS case in the United States.
Q: How many are aging out?
Somewhere around 30,000 age out every year, which means that they have reached the age that there are no longer supports and they do not have permanency, they do not have a family, they’re on their own.
California has more foster youth than the next five states combined. Half of them are actually in L.A. So we have between 60,000 and 65,000 kids in foster care, but 30,000 of them are in L.A. and about 7,000 to 8,000 emancipate, or age out, every year. Well, probably closer to 10,000.
Q: Our interest, obviously, is in the grocery industry, and we admire that you have been getting a lot of support by meeting people…Are you also reaching out to other industries besides the grocery industry?
The reason we like the grocery industry is, A, they came to us, so obviously there is a will; that’s the biggest thing. Jeff Newton from FHI and Mark Olejnik from Domino Sugar literally knocked on our door. They had heard at a WAFC Conference Jimmy Wayne, a Nashville star and former foster youth, and Jimmy apparently said in his keynote that getting a job, that first job, was so important, and now we know the grocery industry has 32 million jobs, a lot of entry-level jobs and suffers with a huge turnover rate, and that costs money. But maybe we could create a pipeline and provide entry-level positions, which our youth need. They’re not coming in with MBAs and going into management; we’ve got a population that has a 50 percent graduation rate and less than 3 percent ever get a bachelor’s degree.
They had gone to other organizations like CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and they said, listen, if you want to do something like this at scale, go talk to iFoster because they know how to take programs and think about them from the corporate side and the child welfare side and then take it to scale. That’s why they came up to Truckee, to our tiny little office, for a meeting. We had always known that jobs were a big thing, right from day one…People had always been asking us, can you get jobs for our youth, and we’re like, well, that’s a little harder than getting them a laptop. But this opportunity came knocking, and we said, OK, this is the opportunity where we think we could lay this out; we are now known in the child welfare sector well enough. We have deep enough roots with all the agencies that we could maybe pull this off.
We reached out to our partners immediately…to help us think through what the program needed to look like, then we went to Raley’s and said, listen, will you help pilot this with us, knowing this is not just for you or the grocery industry; it’s a program for foster youth, and will you help us design it and really understand it from the employer’s point of view? Because at the end of the day, this has to be a win-win on both sides for it to be sustainable over time.
Q: And Raley’s jumped on it right away.
Absolutely. I met with Mark Foley and Kevin Curry, and they were all in right away. It was fantastic.
Jeff Newton and Mark Olejnik plus Paul Christianson and Sue Klug are kind of our core advisory team, and yes, the only way we’re getting in at the C-levels is they make introductions. That’s how it happens. The reason we want to go in via the C-level is even though we are not asking for preferential treatment, at the end of the day, our youth need to interview and stand on their own two feet. It’s competitive work. But having management understand what we’re trying to achieve, how this helps some of the most at-risk population in the country, I think will only help the program.
It also enables us to be able to drop that program anywhere in the country because once Ralphs is on, it’s not just one store, it’s every Ralphs store. Once it’s in the Kroger system, it’s in the Kroger system. Once you deal with Starbucks, it’s every Starbucks.
Q: Does that mean other divisions of Kroger are doing it?
We’re not anywhere where there would be other divisions yet, but Tom Yeomans, who is our human resource contact at Ralphs that we work most closely with, has already presented it to other Krogers and they’re very willing and anxious; we just haven’t gotten there yet.
…The grocery industry stepped up to help our youth. Nobody else is. I think that’s a huge recognition, because there’s financial risk to do that. Too, I think that if done correctly, programs like ours in partnership with employers, can really truly help scaffold our most at-risk individuals to sustainability, to being successful, independent adults. That’s what we want for our kids. And what we love about grocery jobs is that our youth can be immediately successful. And having those early wins in the workplace, you couldn’t ask for anything more. Our kids come from a background of failure; their family failed, they’ve been through multiple placements, which they take on themselves as failures of their own. They struggle a lot of times in school because they might have been moved five times to five different high schools. That’s not unheard of, so challenge after challenge after challenge…if we can get them to the point that they hit the ground running as a bagger and a few months later they’ve been promoted and then they get promoted again? That’s teaching them success in the workplace, and who knows where they can go from there? Most of them are also trying to go to college, and that’s transferable. You get success from the workplace, you’re going to have success in college.
Q: How do you make sure you reach kids aging out?
We do it as a team. I’ll give you the example of L.A. County; we work very closely with the direct service agencies, both government and nonprofit, that serve the transition-age foster youth, the 16- to 24-year-olds. We work as a collaborative, so here in L.A. County, there are dozens that we work with, and we have a very structured approach to training, to recruitment. They go through 30 hours of training, mainly focused on soft skills, and that’s based on doing employer needs assessment and understanding what employers need and where the deficits are. Soft skills are a big deficit for a lot of our youth just because of the way they grew up. They haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to build teamwork, what to do with constructive feedback; work ethic, they haven’t necessarily seen that in their lives, so we focus a lot on that. And it’s actually agency partners who are specialized in training, who actually do the trainings. They go about a month, and that, again, is to replicate coming to work, checking in—you need to be here from 9 to 5. Two-thirds of our kids in L.A. County have kids; you have to figure out child care, transportation, all of that. It’s all part of the training.
Then they come to what’s known as Assessment Day. It’s a lot of fun, chaotic…and the youth come prepared. They’ve already gone to the interview boutique beforehand so they have suits, the appropriate clothing. They show up, go through kind of a round-robin situation. We bring in volunteers from the industry, so they could be from Pepsi, Unified, wherever; the youth don’t know, and they interview the kids against a standard rubric. They assess them for the work-readiness and against those soft skills and then the youth actually learn about all the different jobs that we have available and what it really takes and then they sit down with youth from previous cohorts who are currently working so they can ask all kinds of questions. We make them do reading comprehension and math tests, things like that. Out of that, with all the input from the trainers who have seen them for over a month, we look to match them. Where are they going to do best? What kind of environment, what kind of culture? How do their skill sets match up to what’s being required in these positions, and where can we best fit the youth? Quite frankly, is that youth work ready? If they are not ready for competitive work, we won’t put them forward. We have partners that have 120-hour internships, 300-hour internships that we send them to first for more “baking.”
For example, with this cohort that’s coming through, there are 17 that have been flagged as probably needing more baking. Because, again, we want them to be successful.
I would say the average age is 21, 22. But we look at 16 to 24.
In the state of California, emancipation is at 21.
Q: What else about the program would you like to tell us?
Success is measured by hire rates and retention rates, and then further along, career progression and post-secondary progression. I think there are two components to that. There’s the willingness of the employer to step up and take a chance, because it is a chance, to really partner with an organization like ours or a partnership group like ours, to help. On the other side there is us and our agencies that need to understand and take on the role of training up and investing in our youth so they can take full advantage of the opportunities being offered by employers. We can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, we’ll show you how to write a resume and get you in the door and just walk away;’ that’s not the way it works. We are responsible for meeting the employer’s needs, and that is the skill sets they need and the concrete resources that our youth need to have—transportation, child care, clothing, you name it—and then the ongoing support that our kids need because any young person today walking into his or her first job does have a network of support. That’s usually family and friends. In the absence of that, we need to play that same supportive role that a family would play. So it’s two parts: employer willingness and openness to work with a series of agencies and those agencies coming together and making sure those youth are adequately prepared and have all the supports they need.
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Retailers Share Experiences With iFoster’s Hiring Program As The Organization Eyes Expansion
One in 11 children in the U.S. lives in foster or kinship care at some point before turning 18 years old. Without sufficient resources, these children’s futures are grim: 46 percent drop out of school or fail to get their GED by age 19; 51 percent will be homeless; 50 percent will be unemployed; and 70 percent will be on government assistance. It’s these sobering statistics that make iFoster—a virtual support system for foster and kinship children, youth and their caregivers, connecting them to the resources, people and institutional supports they need—not only welcome but necessary.
iFoster launched in October 2010 and has become one of the largest organizations supporting child welfare with more than 30,000 organizational and individual members nationwide. In fact, the iFoster community reaches more than 2 million children and youth in foster and kinship care in all 50 states.
iFoster helps these at-risk youth in many ways, including through partnerships with hundreds of companies, government agencies, nonprofits and foundations. One of the organization’s biggest supporters is the grocery industry.
By way of iFoster’s jobs/hiring program that launched just more than year ago, the entire grocery industry supply chain is providing countless work opportunities for foster youth who are close to aging out of the foster system. The program matches employers—like Nabisco, PepsiCo, Unified Grocers, Starbucks, Albertsons, Kroger, Food 4 Less, Ralphs, Raley’s, Save Mart Supermarkets, Advantage Sales and Marketing and Freight Handlers Inc. (FHI)—with foster youth who are specifically trained, appropriately resourced and effectively supported to gain employment in entry-level positions.
Representatives from several of iFoster’s grocery partner companies recently told The Shelby Report about their positive experiences with the organization’s jobs program.
Jeff Newton of FHI was introduced to iFoster through musician Jimmy Wayne, who was a foster youth himself.
“We felt strongly that we had found the resource that could help us not only get this thing off the ground but then model it on a national level. That has been the case,” Newton said of FHI’s hiring of foster youth.
He added, “It just seemed like an area that the private industry could engage in. These kids, they didn’t pick their parents and have ended up in these very volatile situations. Many of them are with great foster parents; people in that community doing great work. I actually know some of them; some of them are colleagues and customers of mine that I didn’t even know were foster parents until I got involved. But I knew that because of the type of entry-level jobs we have in the distribution and supply chain space as well as in retail stores that it seemed like a very natural fit with the challenges these kids have aging out of the system.”
Raley’s, which hired iFoster’s first cohort of youths and was the first company to work with the jobs program to develop its training course, earlier this year marked the first anniversary of the foster youth hiring program.
Raley’s SVP of Human Resources and Labor Relations Mark Foley says the partnership has been a “great experience” and one that allows Raley’s to showcase its family-oriented culture.
“What we see is foster youth do try very hard, and they are very conscientious at their job and taking care of our customers. They also are looking for a sense of family. That fits our culture really well because we are a family-owned company that actually considers people who come into our family, so they fit in very nicely and they are looking for that relationship to happen with other team members.”
Raley’s has hired 17 iFoster youths in just more than a year. The first hire was in April 2015.
“All of the hires are in one county, Placer County,” Foley said. “You also need to have the county involved, and so far, iFoster has just been able to get Placer County here in Northern California on board with the program. I work very closely with them in developing, first, what kind of competencies we’re looking for, and they develop the assessments that match what we’re looking for for entry-level positions. I think that has been one of the keys to the success of the program—matching applicants that met the needs.
“Secondly, I spent a lot of time with our HR business partner in the field and also the hiring managers up front, letting them know what we were doing and why we were doing it. We explained they were under no obligation to hire these people, but I did want the foster youth to have a shot at having interviews and being considered for the positions.
“They sent us great candidates right from the beginning, so it made it very easy. In fact, the hiring manager started calling and asking for more applicants from iFoster.”
iFoster job applicants usually range between 18 and 22 and, as Foley points out, these applicants are “extremely prepared for these interviews, much more prepared than we typically see from a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old that comes through the door. As you know, in our industry, this is typically the first job, the first interview they have ever gone through. The foster kids came very prepared.”
Foley credits this to iFoster’s training course.
Alongside an initial assessment and “making sure it’s a good match, there is also a process they go through to prepare them: how to dress, how to show up on time, how to respond to interview questions,” Foley said.
Interestingly, today iFoster no longer informs Raley’s about when it sends the grocer applicants.
“Applicants just come and apply, and we continue to hire them, just because they stand out in the interview process. I get an update from iFoster when we’ve hired another one; that’s the only way I know at this point.
“A lot of them have been promoted to other levels, other jobs. We have lost one, and that person left for a better opportunity, so we understood. I’ll take those turnover rates all day long in our industry.”
As for other retailers or businesses considering participation in iFoster or other such programs, Foley said this: “I think there is an obligation for us, especially in retail, to help our communities and better serve our communities, and I think this is a way of giving back, giving these kids a shot. I think other retailers owe it to the communities they serve…these are great kids that just happen to have some bad luck in their lives. They make fantastic employees; they really fit our culture well.”
Kendra Doyel, speaking on behalf of Ralphs and Food 4 Less, both Kroger companies, echoes Foley’s high praise of iFoster. The grocer kicked off its hiring program in the Los Angeles area.
“We had about 17 young people in that first group and got them through the process, and now we’re looking to expand it out further to six of our districts in Southern California,” she said. “It’s been just a phenomenal partnership. The people who come to work for us through iFoster are ideal candidates and employees and really have been a wonderful addition to our work force.”
She, too, believes iFoster’s training is what makes the program so successful. That’s coupled with the additional training the new hires receive from their employer as well as the experience they gain on the job.
“…iFoster puts them through job skills training, interview training, resume writing, customer service skills, so they have…some of that before they come to us, and then of course they go through our interview/hire/training program as well so they can understand the culture of Ralphs and Food 4 Less and know a little bit about our company.”
In addition to supermarkets, foodservice operators like Starbucks are advocates for iFoster’s jobs program.
Kim Roberts, a district manager responsible for a dozen Starbucks stores in Northern California, approached iFoster because of Starbucks’ participation in the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, a coalition of U.S.-based companies committed to training and hiring 100,000 Americans between 16 and 24 years of age who are out of school and not working, by 2018. Starbucks alone is committed to hiring 10,000 of these youth by 2018, and iFoster is helping the Seattle-based coffee giant meet
Roberts views iFoster as a win on all fronts.
“It’s an opportunity for us to help (these youths) be more planned and organized in their lives. There were a couple of times when a foster youth would say, ‘I’ve had something to come up, I have to go.’ OK, well, now you’re a responsible adult; you need to get that shift covered. So it’s actually been really great for them, too. When things came up, they didn’t know how to plan out their lives with the responsibilities they had. But they are definitely eager and get through that. I don’t know if that’s from being a foster kid and not having that stability or if it’s just from being that age.”
iFoster’s jobs program currently serves California and New York, where it continues to expand, but the organization aims to grow the initiative nationally within the next few years—which is good news for chains like Starbucks.
“There are moments of truth in your life, and you realize there are these critical junctures; this is obviously an incredibly powerful cause, to help these kids,” Roberts said. “But at the same time there is the tactical side, the execution side, and the vision is to create a national program where people can hire these kids.
“…(In iFoster we) found the organization that could help us fulfill our vision.”