The Business of Foster Care

03/14/2012 10:12 am ET Updated May 14, 2012

College students excitedly anticipate opening their mailboxes to find care packages filled with food, school supplies, and other college essentials sent from mom and dad.

But for students who grew up in foster care, the care packages don't often come.

Alliant Credit Union, based in Illinois, teamed up with Foster Care to Success -- one of many organizations who support the futures of foster youth -- to change that. Businesses and organizations across the nation are providing financial, housing, educational and other support to America's most vulnerable children.

"Those in care are even more in need of that support," says Joe McGowean, Vice-President of Marketing for Alliant. Since 2010, the credit union has given over 100,000 dollars in both donated and matched funds to buy items for care packages for foster youth attending college. Foster Care to Success sends three packages a year to the youth they serve.

"They [Alliant] really believe in this mission," says Foster Care to Success' Executive Director, Eileen McCaffrey. "These young people are assets and have incredible resiliency, and we can't afford to lose them. They are also potential consumers," McCaffrey adds.

Certain companies are keeping a close "i" on foster care. iFoster, an online community exclusively for the foster care community, gives youth and families access to over 100,000 discounts nationwide at retailers including Best Buy, Office Depot, and Many of the offers are 10 or 20 percent off of everyday items and purchases like groceries and movie tickets. The site's founders, Reid and Serita Cox, say families who sign up for the free membership can save up to $4,500 a year.

"Because the system is so underfunded, the kids don't get to do things that a normal biological family would be able to do," says Reid Cox. "But with this they no longer feel like second-class citizens at the mercy of the system. They feel empowered," he continues.

Former foster youth in Long Beach, Calif., will have help finding employment thanks to iCracked, an iPhone repair service that dispatches mobile technicians. iCracked is opening its first retail store next month on the first floor of The Palace, a hotel remodeled to provide housing for emancipated foster youth. The company will hire between four to six employees from the pool of former foster youth ages 18-24 who occupy the over one dozen apartments upstairs.

Paul Iliya, Public Relations Director for iCracked, says United Friends of the Children, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit which supports foster youth, contacted the company to get involved.

"They contacted us and it was a great cause, so why not? It fits our model to work with entrepreneurial young people and these youth are the same, they just need the support," says Iliya. "And it's a special deal because my mom was actually a former foster youth in California so it hits home."

Organizations collaborating with companies to make a difference is happening north of California as well.

In Washington state, Janessa Thomas, 19, was having a difficult time the year she entered foster care, her junior year of college.

"When I was going through foster care I was going through a hard time and my grades were falling," said Thomas.

Dealing with the abuse she experienced and the transition into care was overwhelming, and she knew she needed help to become the better than average student she had been before.

So Thomas applied for the College Success Foundation Scholars Program and, when she was accepted, was given a tutor and mentor named Stephon Harris who helped her pick her grades back up and get her ready for college admissions. She was accepted by four schools.

She shared her success story at the annual Pathways to College Summit, where businesses and organizations across Washington state provide higher education and professional development resources to foster youth and child welfare advocates. All of the information is also available year round on their new website,

"These events are the biggest example of collaboration," said Alexia Everett, Senior Officer of Foster Care Education and Policy at the College Success Foundation. "It's about developing networks."

Over in Washington, D.C., foster youth are building networks as part of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute Foster Youth Internship Program, which gives college students the opportunity to work in the office of a congressional member and increase federal awareness about the foster care system.

While the internship provides housing and a stipend, many interns don't always have enough professional clothing for the internship and the networking events they attend.

As a remedy, Lindsay Ellenbogen started the Sara Start fund, which gives each of the 16 interns $500 for professional attire. Named after her grandmother Sara Rosenberg, the clothing fund is furnished by private donations and corporations like Macy's. The United States Senate Federal Credit Union also provides financial literacy classes to the interns on Saturdays, teaching effective budget methods and other financial tips.

"We are investing in them so they can get started in their professional life," says Ellenbogen. "Our motto is potential only matters if you use it."

This motto seems to reflect the philanthropic potential of these companies and organizations who are using their resources to empower youth in foster care.