Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Miriam Cobb
When we frame photos, we put a memory in a place of honor. We remember the sounds, smells, taste, and feeling of that memory. Our family and friends whose photos go on our wall are the people we cherish, and by putting that memory in a frame we are saying, “I choose to remember you”.
But what if people didn’t honor your story? What if your photo wasn’t on anyone’s wall? And what if you didn’t want to remember? For many youth in state care world-wide, this alternate paradigm is a serious reality. Empty Frames Initiative (EFI) is a non-profit whose mission is to empower orphaned and vulnerable youth as they transition out of state care systems. The organization aims to affirm that everyone they come in contact with matters, their stories matter, and they are worthy of remembrance.
About Empty Frames Initiative
Empty Frames Initiative started in 2015. When looking at global orphan care, the organization realized that there was a dramatic gap in services. Youth “aging out” were often caught in a cycle of dependency and/or isolation, especially when constant transitions didn’t allow for them to build a solid support system, and they often had difficulty navigating independent living. These difficulties can lead to homelessness, addiction, incarceration, and/or human trafficking. With close to 20,000 young adults emancipating from US foster care each year, the need for support is great.
During the past four years EFI has been connecting with local organizations, community groups, and foster care alumni to solidify the expectations and plans of their future programs. Notable organizations that have impacted the curriculum development are SaySo, Mission Triangle, NC Coalition Against Human Trafficking, The Harbor in St. Petersburg (Russia), 21 Project, the Christian Alliance for Orphans, among many others. Collaboration over origination has become a commitment within EFI’s structure, as using already-proven methods serves the best interest of the target community.
Building a Safety Net
How does this mission work in reality? Currently, Empty Frames Initiative is looking to purchase a space that will host residents for a short-term, intensive discipleship program. Within this program the young adults involved will receive training in life skills, counseling, community and access to the gospel.
Life skills training will cover a plethora of topics, ranging from cooking and cleaning, to car maintenance and self care. Job skills, like interview training and resumes, and college prep that covers what steps they need to take next to enter a university will also be included. These trainings will be a part of every-day life and routine, with numerous volunteers coming in to teach specific skills.
Counseling will be the focus for almost the entirety of the first month, allowing participants to process and establish a feeling of security within the program. Counselors will also be available for the rest of the program, as life and transition is something we all need help processing at times.
Community involvement is an essential piece of the program, not only because volunteers will be trained and equipped to teach life skills, but because they will become additional support to participants in the program. Often as youth transition out of state care they fall off the radar of their community which leads to the vulnerable situations mentioned earlier. Empty Frames Initiative believes no one is meant to walk through life alone, and that by providing people the young adults can connect with they’re building a safety net that goes beyond what any organization could offer on their own.
The gospel is central to the mission of Empty Frames Initiative, as caring for vulnerable populations is a part of the mission of the church and there is no comparable value to the worth we find in Christ as our Savior. EFI believes that the ultimate way to healing is recognizing a Savior who loves each one of us individually and eternally.
The Story of Foster Care
While many parts of the program will be sourced from other organizations who do great work, there is a piece that is exclusive to Empty Frames Initiative. Storytelling Through Photography is a curriculum developed by EFI that teaches people to process their stories through photography and the written word. It works something like art therapy.
This curriculum was recently piloted by the organization in 2018 and the results were extremely impactful. Three foster care alumni, two social workers, and two foster parents participated in the first trial.
“I had such an amazing time of healing, reflection and release during this process,” said one participant, Angela Quijada, a foster care alumni who has worked in many advocacy and policy capacities and is currently serving as a Foster Club Program Support Intern.
From the stories and photos everyone submitted, an art gallery was created, titled “The Story of Foster Care” and a book under the same name is set to be released on September 1st, 2019. The pieces involved tell of the many highs and lows of being involved in the system and people who view them walk away with a clearer understanding of the experiences people have when involved in state care. This gallery is currently touring the RDU area and gathering support for the organization and the larger foster care community. Beyond the programs EFI looks to offer, there is a constant component of education, as local communities can and do have tremendous impact on the foster care population.
Empty Frames Initiative hopes to create new iterations of the gallery and book with each group that goes through their future programs. In 2019, EFI is focused on raising the funds to purchase a facility that will house a residential program in North Carolina and a small business that will provide a constant stream of revenue allowing the program to be self-sustaining in the future.
Through these programs, EFI encourages those involved that their stories matter, their voices matters, and there is a community that wants to honor their journeys with them.
Miriam Cobb is founder & executive director of Empty Frames Initiative. For more information, please go to www.fillingemptyframes.org.