“Bring what you have to the table”: Ben Sand shares about Oregon foster care initiatives

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I’d like to introduce you to Ben Sand. Not only is Ben known for his rigor, decisiveness and efficiency, he’s also a catalyst for building bridges between secular and faith-based initiatives in the state of Oregon. He’s also a good friend to me and my wife Heather (and even performed our wedding ceremony).

In any given day, you can find Ben running 100 miles an hour, bringing awareness to myriad non-profit social initiatives. He’s the CEO of the Portland Leadership Foundation (PLF), of which I’m incredibly fortunate to be a board member. First and foremost, he’s a man who operates with authentic passion in whatever he may be doing.

Part of PLF’s work involves leading initiatives that reimagine foster care in the state of Oregon. And they’re making terrific strides in helping bridge the gap between government and community as it concerns children in the foster care system. So I wanted to shine some light in today’s blog on this great work. I hope you enjoy our interview!

Q: Could we start by talking a little bit about Portland Leadership Foundation and why it decided to invest in Oregon’s foster care system?

A: Yeah, I’d love to. So, in 2012 we had a community member walk into our office and say, “There’s a shortage of foster families in Portland, and we need to do something about it.” Not long after that, Portland Leadership Foundation (PLF) wrote a concept paper to explore what our most effective next steps could be.

During this time, we discovered a lot. We learned that the Department of Human Services (DHS) is the largest government agency in the state. It employs nearly 10,000 people. And 1 of every 4 Oregonians is a client of the agency. Residents who receive services from DHS are either in need of cash assistance, food assistance, help with employability or they are a child who may be experiencing abuse or neglect in their home. Historically, there has been a striking lack of knowledge in the community around what DHS does or even where DHS offices are located in each county.

So after a lot of research and discovery, we decided to launch this wild campaign to mobilize business leaders, community groups, faith groups, individuals, and families through a model now called Every Child.

Q: Was there anything in particular that stood out to you about the state of the foster care system?

A: Absolutely. As we worked through that concept paper, we discovered that money wasn’t going to be enough. The more we learned, listened to stories and observed all these various dynamics, the more we were convinced that no amount of money was going to solve the problems facing children in foster care.

Money can’t buy relationships or healthy families.

Q: This sounds like a pretty complex problem. Where did you start?

A: We felt that in order to affect real change, we needed to address the false notion that government agencies and the community don’t work together well. We wanted to create a new paradigm where Oregonians would come to recognize that the government is only as strong as the people that come alongside it. Tax dollars aren’t enough to fix the problems children and families face.

So we designed a four-part model to try to address some of these larger barriers along with the practical:

  1. Our first goal was to build a counter-narrative: community and DHS should work hand-in-hand to care for children in foster care.
  2. Next, we wanted to create volunteer on-ramps for Oregonians who maybe aren’t necessarily interested in being foster care parents, but who definitely want to make a difference in the life of a child who’s been placed in the foster care system.
  3. We also wanted to be a source of support for DHS employees, so the third part of our model is providing tangible goods and hospitality to DHS employees.
  4. To round out our mission, we also created a path to actively recruit foster families.

Q: How did DHS and government agencies react?

A: We have a robust and healthy relationship with the state of Oregon. There isn’t a week that goes by that we aren’t in touch with local and state-wide government officials. Every month, we send data and information to the governor’s office, and we are all very excited about the progress we’ve seen so far.

Q: What sort of progress have you made since 2013?

A: We’ve seen a ton of great things. In 2015 we received 173 foster family inquiries (families who said they’re interested in becoming foster care families). Last year we saw that number reach almost 900 families, and so far in 2018 we’re on track to see more than 1,000 inquiries. Our volunteer base keeps growing; more than 3,300 Oregonians who are contributing in some way, whether through hospitality, creating welcome boxes, making financial donations, etc.

Q: What do you think has allowed you to see so much success?

A: I think it helps that we have no policy agenda. Our sole mission is to connect community members with state employees, vulnerable kids and their families. I think it also helps that we hold ourselves accountable to outcomes. Historically, the community has only held the government accountable for the challenges we face in child welfare. But now, we’re saying the government shouldn’t be doing this alone, and as a community, we’re going to be accountable as well.

Q: What is the best way to get involved?

A: Bring what you have to the table. There are all kinds of ways to get involved, from supplying tangible goods, to creating “welcome boxes” for children who have just been placed in the system, and more.

Q: What’s in the future for Every Child?

A: We’re committed to establishing Every Child initiatives across the state by 2020. Right now we’re in 13 counties, and by year’s end we’ll be in 18 of the state’s 36 counties. Being in those 18 counties means that we’ll have resources available to 91% of Oregonians.

Editor’s note: Here are some links if you’re interested in learning more.

This link will give an overview of the tangible ways that Every Child is meeting practical needs. They create welcome boxes for children who are waiting in a DHS office; they create launch boxes for children who are aging out of the foster care system; and they also have a way to donate to emergency needs that the DHS has identified.

­Or if you’re interested in signing up to learn more, this link will take you to their “connect form.”