April Robinson dreamed of someday running her own bed-and-breakfast, but the former foster youth felt a little stuck. She wasn’t sure what sort of training she needed to prepare for the hospitality industry, and although she wanted to hone her culinary skills, the young Robinson wasn’t equipped to pursue her passion.
“I was always having to borrow my neighbor’s casserole dishes,” she says. “I wanted my own stuff, so I didn’t have to rely on other people.”
Then, last fall, one of Robinson’s neighbors introduced her to the Camellia Network, a nonprofit Internet startup based in Midtown Sacramento that connects recently emancipated foster youth to people looking to support them as they make the transition from the state’s care into adulthood.
Today, Robinson, 21, owns new pans, mixing bowls, a saucepot, a steamer, a 10-piece cutlery set and much more. She is one of some 170 former foster youth signed on to the Camellia Network, connecting with folks who want to provide them not just with gifts, but also moral and professional support as they enter the “real world.”
According to Joslyn Morris, program director at the Camellia Network, American teenagers often have a number of adults in their lives who help prepare them for the world after high school: parents, teachers and mentors. These people are pivotal in providing them with guidance, monetary support and professional connections.
“A lot of times, foster youth don’t have anyone making those connections for them,” Morris says, “so the idea of Camellia is to create an online network that sort of simulates that experience.”
This simulated support network includes a $500 gift registry for each emancipated youth, through which supporters can buy items to help them achieve the goals they’ve outlined on their profiles. Gifts on the registries can vary from toiletries to refurbished computers to professional clothes for job interviews.
The tech-savvy nonprofit has also designed its site to function as a social network, allowing supporters to send words of encouragement to the youth, or even provide them with professional advice. This aspect, to Morris’ surprise, has proven more popular than the gift registry.
“The youth would say, ’It was just so nice to get notes and hear that people care about me,’” she says. “Some of them had never gotten messages like that before, and it was really powerful.”
The Camellia Network came into existence as a result of the surprise success of co-founder Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel, The Language of Flowers, which explores the issues facing foster youth aging out of the system. Using advanced earnings from her book, Diffenbaugh teamed up with her friend, brand strategist Isis Dallis Keigwin, to navigate the Camellia Netowork’s pilot run. Working with 33 former foster youth, Diffenbaugh and Keigwin managed to raise $33,000 in registry gifts in just five months.
Today, says Morris, the network’s current iteration includes some 1,700 supporters, but only 171 youths across 10 states. The small staff are eager to expand the network, though they’re admittedly running the nonprofit like a tech startup—lots of coding, shared office space in Midtown’s Urban Hive, and never, ever enough hours in the day.
“We’re sort of building the car as we’re driving it,” says Morris, adding that the site’s career-opportunity function could benefit from an increased user base, and that the database for youth resources is not yet fully operational.
This isn’t even to mention the fact that many former foster youth do not have easy access to the Web. Robinson, for instance, says she hasn’t signed on to Camellia much of late because the wireless where she’s staying is not reliable. She’s not alone.
“The digital divide is a huge issue for foster youth,” says Morris, though Camellia is working to fix that. “One of the things we do offer is a computer on the registry.” The nonprofit also plans to offer smartphones and service-plan payments on the registry sometime soon.
Today, Robinson is starting a new housekeeping job, and she is currently enrolled in culinary and business classes at American River College. One wonders if she hasn’t signed on to Camellia’s site recently because of her current Web-access issues, because her registry has long-since been filled or simply because she is busy chasing her dreams.
With around 30,000 American foster youths aging out of care each year, however, there’s certainly no danger of running out of prospective users.