Editor's note about Changemakers: This is part of a continuing series of stories and columns about people and places fostering change in our community.
CINCINNATI -- Summer camps, after-school sports and out-of-state college visits are just some of the life experiences that thousands of kids living in foster care often miss because the price tags are too high for the families supporting them.
A new nonprofit is working to change that in Hamilton County.
The Friends and Advocates Making Investments in Local Youth Fund -- or FAMILY Fund -- collects donations and raises money to help pay for activities and other costs for foster kids that Hamilton County Job and Family Services can't cover with its limited government budget.
"We're discovering that it doesn't take much at all to change a kid's life," said Rob Herman, a Cincinnati resident who launched the fund two years ago.
Under the program, foster families can make requests from the fund via an application process with their foster child's social worker from Job and Family Services. The requests are then sent to the fund's six-member volunteer board, which grants the cash awards to foster families largely based on the money available, Herman said.
YOU CAN HELP: Learn more about donating to the FAMILY Fund here.
One hundred percent of the tax-free donations made to the fund are used to fulfill wishes made by local foster kids. Herman said that on average, the fund has been able to grant about 40 each year.
Among the most common requests:
- $50 to cover summer camp
- $130 for a King's Island pass
- $200 gymnastics classes
- $500 out-of-state school trip
- $800 for an iPad with learning apps for a child with a disability
- $1,000 for a year of dance classes
In Finneytown, Esther Holliday used money donated to the FAMILY Fund to buy an iPad for her foster daughter, Gail Johnson, during her senior year of high school in 2017.
"It's been invaluable to her," Holliday said. "She's used it to write essays and prepare for a job readiness program."
One essay Johnson wrote landed her a $2,500 scholarship from the University of Cincinnati.
"The scholarship money can be used for lots of different things," Johnson, now 19, said. "If I get a job, I can use it to buy work uniforms, and I was able to buy a laptop."
No donation is too small to make a big impact, Herman said: "With just a few hundred dollars you can provide a life-changing experience for a kid."
Herman, a senior partner at a local investment firm and father of three, said learning about the "staggering" number of children entering the foster care system locally inspired him to launch the fund.
"The foster care population is growing rapidly, and as a father I know how impactful life enrichment opportunities are for children," Herman said. "I really wanted to find a way to give back and support these kids."
As more children enter the foster system at record rates, the fund has become a crucial resource for hundreds of local foster families, said Brian Gregg, a spokesman for Job and Family Services.
More than 3,500 children were in protective services custody at the end of 2017 -- with 1,518 of them entering the system in that year alone, according to Jobs and Family Services. The numbers are the highest the agency has seen in nearly two decades -- putting a major strain on resources and funding to care for at-risk kids, Gregg said.
"The family fund helps us fill the gaps by covering the cost of those extra things that we can't use taxpayer money for," Gregg said. "It really does make a huge difference for these kids and their families."
Since launching the fund, the money raised has largely come from individual donations and local fundraisers hosted by Herman and the fund's board members. The group is hoping to launch an annual fundraiser to raise awareness about the local needs for foster kids and families, Herman said.
"My goal is to raise $1 million by 2019," Herman said. "That would really put us in a good position make this a sustainable source of funding and not have to turn anyone away who has a request."