In honor of National Adoption Month, we’re proud to feature Susan Punnett, Executive Director of Family & Youth Initiative (’15-’16). DCFYI is the only DC area organization focused exclusively on helping teens in foster care make lifelong connections with caring adults.Susan has twenty years of experience in child welfare and related social services. Prior to founding Family & Youth Initiative, she served for five years as Director of the Kidsave Weekend Miracles DC program, piloting a new approach to helping older children in foster care find adoptive families with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Read on to learn more about Susan and DCFYI!
What motivated you to begin working with your organization?
Five years ago I was the project director at a non-profit, helping teens in foster care find adoptive families. When that organization decided to end the program a number of us were unwilling to walk away from the teens who had not yet found family. So we started Family & Youth Initiative to keep the program going. I was motivated then as I am now by the amazing teens I have gotten to know. I consider myself privileged to play a part in this very critical time in their lives.
How is your organization recognizing National Adoption Month?
Actually much of what we do this month is the same as what we do year round talking to people about teens in foster care and bringing teens and adults together so they can form what will become lasting relationships. National Adoption Month gives us a bit of a bigger platform because of the added publicity from events like National Adoption Day (in DC, Adoption Day in Court).
Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?
I am inspired by people who are generous, people who see a need and actually respond whether by offering to help or creating an answer to a problem. One of the joys of the work I do is that I have gotten to know so many people just like that, who are generous and loving and committed to making a difference. And I am inspired by the resilience and fortitude of the young people I have gotten to know. They too are generous and loving, reaching back to help those coming behind them while they staying positive about their own futures, despite everything they have been through.
What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?
For the past three years, two long-time DCFYI volunteers have funded an adventure park outing (aerial trails and zip lines) for teens and adults. This year’s outing was a few weeks ago. It was the perfect combination of adults going above and beyond (whether funding the outing or for some adults going on the course themselves) to support DCFYI teens and watching teens conquer something very challenging and get such a sense of accomplishment when they did. (I only wish I had captured on video the two girls who started spontaneously singing a hymn to boost their courage, especially when other people joined in!)
What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?
When you hear the word “adoption” what pops to mind? For the vast majority of people the response would be infants or toddlers. Very few adults have thought about teens who still want to be adopted, understand how difficult it is to be a teen who is going to “age out” of foster care, or even know that adopting a teen is possible. So our greatest challenge is bringing awareness to teens and teen adoption, which is the first step to finding those special people who will actually become the adoptive parent of a teen. Our answer is to use every opportunity to tell adults about teens in foster care and continue to create opportunities for adults and teens to meet.
What advice do you have for other people in your position?
Stay focused on the outcomes. What are you trying to accomplish? It’s so easy to get bogged down in day to day details and keep putting off the harder, deeper work needed to move an organization or program toward the important outcomes. Say yes to people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and help. Say no even to great ideas if they’ll take you off track. Keep listening and learning (especially from those who benefit from the work of the organization).
What’s next/coming up for you?
In the immediate future: Saturday is Adoption Day in Court. We’ll have an information table but I’ll be upstairs for the ceremony, especially when the adoption of a former participant who met his adoptive mom through DCFYI is finalized. He is 22 now. I’m hoping his adoption sparks conversations about adult adoptions and why young people who have already left foster care still want the legal tie to an adoptive family. December 5 is the Adoption and Foster Care Expo. I’m proud to be part of a small group of people who stepped in to keep this tradition going after the closure of the Freddie Mac Foundation. We don’t have the Foundation’s deep pockets but we have put together a full schedule on a very small budget. December is also our annual holiday party (gingerbread houses and presents). And of course we’ll keep talking about teens and DCFYI to anyone who wants to know more.