Charity Spotlight: Sara Start Fund

Longtime Capitol Hill staffer coaches foster youth during their Hill internships.

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Mentor Bryan Bonner edits resumes with foster youth interns at Living Social Headquarters. (Photo by )

For foster children, the road to success is often steeped with more challenges than many can imagine facing, and in a city as competitive as Washington, those challenges can be insurmountable if you don’t know “the rules.” The fast-paced world of Capitol Hill internships requires an acute understanding of the unspoken playbook that governs the in’s and out’s of Washington.

Ten years ago, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) began the Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program, which places foster youths in Hill offices for summer internships. When Lindsay Ellenbogen, a 10-year Hill veteran, joined the FYI advisory board, she saw an opportunity to teach foster children those elusive Hill rules.

In 2011, Ellenbogen launched the Sara Start Fund (SSF), named for her late grandmother . SSF is comprised of Saturday sessions throughout the internships that offer bonus experiences, such as a shopping day coupled with tips on dressing professionally. Interns are also paired with mentors for networking opportunities and offered cultural experiences such as a trip to the Phillips Collection.

FYI offers foster youths the opportunity to share their unique perspectives with policymakers in Congress. Not only can interns provide a first-hand view of child welfare issues, but they also research issues impacting foster care children and compile their findings and recommendations into a report, which is presented at a Congressional briefing and shared with child welfare advocates across the country.

“These 15 [participants] come to Washington not only as foster youth interns, but as a voice of every child in the foster care system,” said , executive director of CCAI. “They help challenge members of Congress to think about how federal policymakers can forge a new path for the over 400,000 children entrusted to our care.”

Ellenbogen found her passion for working with foster youths when she volunteered with Jewish Adoption and Foster Care Options (JAFCO) and was inspired to start SSF after working on the Hill.

“We had a foster youth intern that was assigned to the press office and I saw that this was a person who put the coffee on in the morning, turned the lights off late at night and was working just as hard as we were, which was frankly a little different from other interns. At that point, I knew that when I could I wanted to become more involved with CCAI and foster youth,” said Ellenbogen.

Foster Youth interns tour The Phillips Collection. (Photo by Linda Lee Zambito)

The interns are anywhere from 19 to 25 years old, and Ellenbogen said they’ve lived many lives by then.

“I don’t know many 19-year-olds who have had to rise to as many occasions as these kids have. They are uniquely suited to public policy because they’ve had to face challenges … [and] they can really solve problems,” said Ellenbogen.

Linda Lee Zambito, a recent graduate of Florida International University, was a member of the 2011 FYI class and interned in S.C. Senator ’s office.

“The SSF understands former foster care youth are just like other young people with dreams, hopes and vast potential. SSF is our support network when we arrive on The Hill, [and] like our concerned parent … encourages and provides us with the skills and assets to succeed,” said Zambito.

Zambito plans to spend ten months in AmeriCorps assisting disaster relief before applying to graduate school to study urban and regional development and landscape architecture.

SSF has had a lasting impact not only on Zambito and public policy, but on Ellenbogen as well. Her work caught the attention of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who recently named her to a three year appointment on the Advisory Council to the Children’s Cabinet.

“This is not a one time shtick for me, … [but] a labor of love,” said Ellenbogen. “And it’s because I had a woman like Sara Rosenberg in my life … When I lost [my grandmother] I wanted to do something to honor her that would give to somebody else even a little bit of what she gave me.”

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