By Elisabeth Shirley
Florida has some of the highest numbers in terms of child and youth houselessness in the nation, with more than 21,000 children receiving out-of-home care. In the northeast region alone, there are over 3,000 according to MyFLFamilies.
Foster care is a crucial necessity for children in St. Johns County experiencing abuse or neglect. Children in the foster care system are more likely to have psychological and physical health issues, lower academic success and abuse substances in the future.
This is why Flagler College alumni Aubrie Simpson-Gotham, ‘12, became inspired to start Fostering Connections after years of volunteering. Her personal work as an educator and her father’s experience in foster care set up to create the organization she never knew she would found.
Fostering Connections, “uplifts local children and youth impacted by foster care or trauma by providing needed essentials, educational programs, and community connections,” according to their website. Through their services they help ensure the success of fostered youths to excel academically and socially as they navigate their way through trauma and hardships that come with being a child in the foster system.
Aubrie Simpson-Gotham, who was recently hired as CEO, established her organization in 2019 after working as a teacher and seeing the gaps in the school system for services kids needed.
“They didn’t know where to go for help, and I started to feel really called to be able to serve on the family support side instead of the teaching side,” said Simpson-Gotham. Wanting the creative freedom to start a program that would better serve foster children and their families, she is able to put her skills to use by facilitating the learning programs.
Today, Fostering Connections serves the counties of Duval, St. Johns, Putnam, Flager and Volusia. The organization helps children with basic needs, educational technology, different enrichment opportunities, programs for career and college readiness, as well as training and opportunities for volunteers to help support their community.
Simpson-Gotham said that in the Title 1 schools she worked with, many students come from single-household families, and they often needed mentors for academic tutoring as well as basic needs such as clothing and shoes.
“When I was teaching nine years ago, there weren’t as many comprehensive community services as there are now and so oftentimes, needs for children often went unfilled because there just weren’t systems in place to help connect families to resources and support,” she said.
One essential resource the organization provides is access to laptops for children to be able to do work away from school so they can help reach their educational goals.
“Only about 20% of kids in foster care have access to technology at home. They often have to share devices with foster parents or other siblings and it creates a lot of stress for everyone.”
It’s not only important that Fostering Connections helps foster youths academically, but socially as well. This means they often help students get to do activities outside of school where they can nurture their talents and interests, whether that means dance lessons or leadership classes.
“A lot of times when kids have been through significant trauma, they become identified by their trauma, but they’re a whole person, and so to be able to give them opportunities to grow their talents and help them see all the possibilities in life and that their future is bright,” she said. “They’ve been through a lot of horrible things, but there’s so many opportunities for them to continue to grow their skills and move forward in their life and begin a plan for the future.”
As they continue to expand, Fostering Connections hopes to offer internship positions for students looking to get involved. They primarily rely on private donations and volunteers to succeed, so if you are interested in learning how to help, click here.