“Miss Beverly is awesome!”

"My mother was a woman of faith, and our faith played a large role in our lives. My mother's goal for me was that I would go to college." Beverly Howard

When Beverly Howard was in high school, she aspired to be just like her French teacher, “a beautiful, poised, sophisticated black woman.”

Today, Beverly is a dynamic, enthusiastic spitfire and her foster-kid-charges will tell you that she is absolutely perfect just the way she is.

Beverly’s mom worked as a housekeeper, so as an elementary school student, little Beverly would get herself home from school and lock the door tightly behind her, her protection against their dangerous DC neighborhood.

Before she was old enough to work, Beverly’s summers were spent with her grandmother in South Carolina. She loved those summers far away from DC and filled with kids, some related, some not… so many kids needing a safe place and finding it among Beverly’s family.

"Miss Beverly is fun, energetic and spontaneous." 20-year-old boy in foster care

Beverly says that she was always the smallest in her class and so was easily left out. She would insinuate herself into the group by always having ideas of fun things to do.

In junior high she earned her way into the Junior Honor Society, juggling academics with acting and sports.

Beverly started working with kids as a teenager, working at one of DC’s summer camp programs. When it was time for college, she had several scholarship offers and chose the one that would keep her on the path to becoming a doctor.

It was during her pre-med classes that she realized she hated being around germs. She transferred to the University of Maryland, earning her undergraduate degree in psychology and then her Ph.D.

While her actual age is a carefully guarded secret, Beverly has lived long enough to boast a

long career of making a difference. She was the Executive Director of National Urban Internet, Inc., where she wrote grants to secure funds to support the organizations efforts to bring technology, entrepreneurship and golf lessons to youth living in public housing in DC. And when she couldn’t find a golf teacher to work with the kids, Beverly jumped in and taught them herself.

She identified and wrote grant proposals to provide self-sufficiency programs for at-risk youth living in public housing.  She was the Director of Community Relationships for the Alexandria, VA Housing Authority where she managed education and support programs for public housing residents for families and youth.  In addition, she spent many years working tirelessly in several substance abuse/addiction and psychiatric programs for youth-aged children.

By the time I met Dr. Beverly Howard on a Wednesday’s Child/NBC-4, shoot seven years

"I truly believe that every child should have at least one adult whose face lights up when he or she enters the room – someone who is always happy to see them. All too often, our kids in foster care don't have that." Beverly Howard

ago, she was working for Fairfax County, VA with older kids in foster care. She was on the shoot to help make sure that two of her foster-charges put their best feet forward, in hopes that someone would see these terrific boys on NBC-4/DC and want to adopt them.

I was there taking pictures, so that the brothers would have pictures to remember this

special day when they got to spend time with Barbara Harrison/NBC-4 at a carnival.

Before I knew it, Beverly was asking me if I would be willing to come photograph one of the events she ran for foster kids in Fairfax County, VA.  She told me about the program she ran for kids in foster care who were older and most of whom were available for adoption, but were at an age when they are less likely to be adopted.

These were children who didn’t have many positive role models and didn’t have people in their lives who thought they were special and important.  The group came together two – three times per month and some of the mentors, mentored kids one-on-one during the month as well.

I met a dozen or so kids there that day, all dressed in matching bright blue Fairfax Families4kids t-shirts. I met a 14-year-old boy whose big brown eyes told me about a lifetime of sadness, a 13-year-old girl who shyly showed off her voice as she sang a popular song for me and two brothers who nervously shook my hand as they awaited the arrival of their potential adoptive parents.

I saw the impact Beverly had as she interacted with each child. Beverly Howard sees every child as having potential. She leads by example. Children don’t need to first be likeable, before they are liked.

"She teaches us how to take the next step in life. A lot of us are at that age when we will be on our own soon. We need guidance to take that next step." 17-year-old boy in foster care

Through Fairfax Families4kids, Beverly has created a family, a family where one might otherwise not exist.

In foster care, kids often go to sleep with the uncertainty that when they wake up, they may be told to pack their meager belongings into a garbage bag, to move to a new placement.

They are often in group homes and residential facilities with staffs who are doing their jobs…some better than others. Often foster parents are also just doing a job. That is not to say that there aren’t caring foster parents and warm staff working in group facilities, there are absolutely are. But in my experience, too many foster kids feel very much alone in dealing with their pasts, their presents and the insecurity that comes with feeling that they have no control over their futures.

"Miss Beverly is awesome!" 15-year-old girl in foster care

Through Beverly’s/Fairfax Families4kids program, the kids truly know what it means to walk into a room and have faces light up with excitement to hear about what they have been doing. They connect with mentors and potential adoptive families and experience new things.

They learn to model appropriate behaviors which are reinforced through positive feedback.  They have a safe haven where they are listened to without impatience and where they know that they will not be judged unfairly or harshly.

Beverly says that being a parent is what most influenced the work she does today.  As a single mom of two boys for 10 years, she experienced the bumps, bruises and emergency room visits that tend to go along with having boys. When she got re-married, her family doubled with her new husband’s two kids from a previous marriage.  But it was when they adopted two preteen daughters, she said, she had to unlearn everything she knew from raising boys, as she tried to figure out how to raise girls full-time and how to successful integrate these wonderful girls into their family.

Today, Beverly is proud of her sprawling family of six children and twelve grandchildren — so far. And she is thankful for all of the experiences that led her down the path to blending a large group of strangers including teenagers and adults, into a unique kind of family for at-risk kids, who would otherwise be without.

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He will be missed

My cousin, Joanne (age 86), didn’t get to see her friend, Peter, as often as she would like. So I was happy to play chauffeur for a Valentine’s Day lunch.

I had had lunch with Joanne and Peter before, so I knew to expect lively discussion on a range of topics… from children (his and hers) to grandchildren (his and hers)… to Joanne’s recent trip to Burma… to politics…to the elementary school boy Joanne tutors in reading… to my shoot at a prison, all while enjoying great French food.

As the meal drew to a close, Joanne thanked Peter for all of the Valentine’s cards he had sent. Without missing a beat, he smiled widely at her and responded, “Oh good. You got them.”  To which she replied, “Not a one.” And they both laughed.

It was one of those intimate moments, reflective of two people who know each other well and truly enjoy each others’ quirks.  It was the perfect close to a Valentine’s Day celebration.

I saw Peter several times after that, but his health declined quickly and, sadly, he passed away a few weeks ago.

I was so lucky to have known Peter and to have been able to spend time with him together with Joanne over the past few years.

He will be missed.

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Non-profit entrepreneur and her young daughter touch hearts

I have found that people come into my life just when I need them. When I need to be challenged, when I need to be supported and especially when I need to be inspired.

Like a month or so ago, when I was feeling like there is more bad in the world than good, and I checked my email to find a bright light of hope.

"I had always thought of myself as a giving person, when I am asked to help, I always try respond affirmatively. But when I met Helen and started working with her at Touching Heart, I was truly inspired and I realized how much opportunity there is to look for needs to meet, rather than waiting to be asked to give." Carolyn Pennington

When Carolyn Pennington (Reston-Va based real estate agent, mom and head of education for Touching Heart), contacted me for pictures, we discovered we had a lot in common, most significantly a desire to make a difference

in the lives of children.

We decided to get together for coffee and Carolyn invited her friend, Helen Yi, to join us.

As we chatted, I learned that Helen had been influenced greatly by her grandmother, her mother and her Pastor

Helen Yi, Co-founder, Touching Heart

father. All were people who did not let anyone go unnoticed; not the sullen girl at the grocery check-out who responded to a smile, the single mom who needed help to feed her kids or the boy being battered by an abusive father.

As a pastor’s daughter, sadness and despair weren’t things she just heard about, Helen saw their impact first-hand and saw the difference a kind word and tangible support could make.

She told me that meeting real people and hearing their difficulties helped her to develop the empathy that she carries with her today.

As she started her own family, Helen wanted to instill in her kids the same values that she had been raised with. With her oldest, she fed the hungry, brought coats to the cold and raised money as a hedge against abuse and neglect.

Taylor, had so much compassion for others that Helen wanted to do more to embrace that giving spirit, while expanding the amount of difference that she herself was able to make in the world.

So she set a goal: By the time she was 40, she must be focused on doing something that was going to make a bigger difference in the world, something that she could do together with Taylor and her younger kids, as they got older.

But 40 was fast approaching and she was no closer. Then, as she worked with Taylor to plan her 12th birthday party. Taylor had an idea, what if instead of getting gifts, she

Co-founders of Touching Heart: Helen and Taylor Yi

asked attendees to make a donation to a charity. After that party they began brainstorming how they might expand on that idea.

At first, Helen thought she could start a non-profit and continue work full-time as a successful telecommunications product manager, but quickly realized she needed to make a choice. Helen quit her job in order to get her 501C3 registered and she and Taylor co-founded Touching Heart in 2010.

The Touching Heart concept is simple: If you teach children at a young age what it means to be kind to another person, you instill in them an empathy that will last a lifetime.

Touching Heart trains “ambassadors” (aged 13-18) who then run seminars for 6 – 12 year olds. Those seminars include role-play and other activities to help the children to think outside of themselves. The workshops have taken place at elementary schools as well as for girl scout troops. Even if the kids don’t participate in Touching Heart after the workshop, the hope is that a seed is planted that will take root.

Both Taylor and one of the Ambassadors I met, Madeline, talked about the connection

they felt to the kids at an orphanage in Kenya, when they were introduced through essays, letters, pictures and the beautiful bracelets made by the Kenya kids as gifts for the US kids. And they loved making bracelets to send back to the kids in Kenya.

Kids are able to register their birthday parties on the website, so that party goers can made a donation to a charity of the birthday child’s choice: One of the several orphanages the group sponsors or a project to help local-VA children in foster care.

The US kids and kids at orphanages around the world, write cards and make bracelets for each other.

What the kids say, “”At first I didn’t know what an orphan [was]. But when I did the workshop I understood what it means to grow up without parents and not have lots of clothes and toys. I think I will help some of the poor kids who are also orphans. I am thankful to have parents who love me and give me whatever I want.” Diya, age 7

What the parents say: “My daughter and I found both letters to be very touching and moving. What a wonderful experience for her. Thank you!! By the way her face lit up with a big smile and red cheeks, I could see that she felt that she had made a difference as well as a connection to a girl her own age though many miles away.”  Marina (mom)

When I asked Helen if she felt that her previous career has helped her to be successful as a non-profit entrepreneur – and she told me that learning to get along with all different kinds of people in all different scenarios was key. She also told me that the network she created while working in telecommunications has helped her significantly in making Touching Heart a success.

In addition to co-founding Touching Heart, Taylor is a cheerleader, plays with a travel tennis team, is an honor roll student and plays the piano.

This April, Touching Heart, chaired by Carolyn Pennington, will hold its first fundraiser. A golf tournament complete with auction and some great celebrity guests including Washington Redskin legends: Darrell Green, Ken Harvey and Brian Mitchell, Virginia State Senator: Mark Herring and NBC Sports Anchor: Dan Hellie.

If hearing about Helen has touched your heart, click here to get more information on how you can get involved.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. Aesop

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Three week old puppies go to prison for training

When I got the call asking me if I would be able to go to the puppy transfer of Claire’s second litter, I was thrilled. (click to learn more about my experiences with paws4people.org and here to learn about the non-profit’s co-founder.)

One of the puppies on the day they were born.

This was the first time a paws4people litter was starting their training before they were ready to leave their mom, who was going with them.  And it was also the first time I was going to the Lakin State Correctional Facility.

I found the trainers there to be just as terrific as they are at Hazelton Penitentiary.  And, of course, the excitement surrounding the arrival of those tiny puppies was huge.

There are lots of restrictions on taking pictures when I go to the prisons, and normally, I am unable to share most images publicly.

But, I like to put together a slideshow for the trainers after I visit, and this one has been released for posting on the paws4people blog.

Sorry for the extra click, but if you are interested in “meeting” the wonderful trainers at the Lakin State Correctional Facility, photographed with the three week old puppies and the older dogs who have been in training there for a while, click here.

Fingers crossed that a recent shoot where the trainers demonstrated one of the dog’s ability to read will also be released!

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What do you get when you cross a little girl, a dog and some senior citizens?

When I met Kyria (Kir-ee-ay) Henry, she was an adorable, 22-year old co-ed at West Virginia University. But unlike her peers, she wasn’t simply juggling a full class-load, cheerleading and a boyfriend, she was also co-running a very cool non-profit– A foundation that utilized prison inmates to train Assistance Dogs for children and vets.

Her journey had begun many years before, when she was just 12 and desperate for a puppy.  When she finally got Riley, he was her constant companion, even going with her to visit her grandparents. And while some kids might have objected to taking a back-seat to their dog, Kyria was thrilled to see her grandparents light up as they interacted with the lively fellow.

Working Dog, Riley. Photo courtesy of the Henry’s.

After seeing how her grandparents responded to Riley, she took him to a local nursing home.  I asked her what she remembers about that first visit, “I just remember watching Riley as if he was my child and being so proud and realizing there was such value in what he was doing for people.”

When she told her parents that she wanted to find a way for Riley to make more people happy and to train more dogs to make even more people happy, she had their full support. And in 1999, paws4people™ Foundation was born. The initial mission: To provide service dogs who could make a difference in nursing homes and special education classrooms.

In those early days, Kyria was a middle school student and her parents both worked full-time. As important as the Foundation was, it had to be run in their spare time. But as more and more requests came in and the mission expanded, Kyria’s dad, Terry quit his full-time job, opting for part-time work. Eventually, he gave that up to devote full-time to  the expanding paws4people™. The family learned to live on Mom/Debbie’s salary.

“It started off as a dream of yours to touch people’s lives with these precious dogs, and now look at the results. You’ve touched the world. You’ve certainly touched mine. You are an inspiration in dreaming big.” Gemma, Trainer

In 2007, and in college, Kyria met with staff from the Bureau of Prisons and paws4prisons became a reality.  As one of the inmate/trainers recently told me with a twinkle in her eye, “Paws4people needed free trainers and we…well… we were available.” Not only could more dogs be trained,  but everyone would see first-hand the amazing impact the training process had on the trainers.

Today, paws4people™ Foundation boasts 250 trained and “matched” Assistance Dogs,  50 more currently in training and 250 volunteers and trainers.  And Kyria and Terry  breed their own puppies for training.

The mission has been greatly expanded: To train and place Assistance Dogs with children and adolescents with physical, neurological, psychiatric or emotional disabilities; and Veterans and active-duty Service Members with Chronic/Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).

Turning 25 this July, Kyria has completed not just her under graduate degree, but has completed her masters as well. In addition to working full-time for paws4people™, she is teaching the first and only of its kind, a 4-course series Assistance Dog Certificate Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

For some, having a service dog means help with the little things that can be big, like not

Erin practicing with her dog, Solomon.

having to wait for a teacher or another student to pick up the pencil that has just been dropped. For others, it means having the courage to do things some might take for granted, like being able to walk into a grocery store. And for a teacher, it means finding new ways to reach his/her  students.

Rachael and Dawson get reacquainted on a recent visit to Hazelton Federal Penitentiary.

Soon Rachael’s dog, Dawson, will be done with his prison training and will move in with her full-time. “My goal is to become more independent…He will be able to help me by opening doors, retrieving items, turning lights on and off, having Dawson around in case of emergency is a big one for me… To Kyria and Terry: You have changed MY life forever!”

Alex visits Hazelton Federal Penitentiary for a training session with Kingsley.

Jennifer’s son Alex has been matched with a paws4people™ dog as well. “Kingsley is going to be a huge step in Alex’s journey towards independence and we have Kyria to thank for that. She is one of those rare people who sees past the wheelchair and the cerebral palsy and sees the potential that the future holds.” Alex, a high school senior, says, “She inspires me to move past my “disability” and utilizing an amazing dog to help me do so makes it even cooler.”

Kyria, Terry and Debbie

Clearly Kyria has some pretty incredible parents. In Kyria’s words, “They have been amazing supports. My dad is obviously amazing. His passion and commitment for what we’re doing just proves to me that this is all divinely orchestrated…The fact that we are able to do it together is really, really wonderful.”

Ever humble, when I asked Kyria what she thinks about her accomplishments, she responded, “They aren’t my accomplishments, they are really everyone’s… I am just trying to spend each day doing a few more things [ ] in order to keep us on this amazing path.”

Riley has long since been laid to rest, but Kyria’s passion for expanding the number of people she can help; both trainers and recipients lives on.  Having accomplished all this in 12 years,  I can only imagine the difference she will be making 12 years from now.

Inspired by Kyria? Click here to learn more and to join her in making a difference.

“For those who dare to dream there is a whole world to win” -Dhirubhai Ambani       (sent to me by Gemma/Trainer)

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My New Year’s Resolution: Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

I met a friend for coffee today.  We picked a table in the corner and began brainstorming ways that we could help to make a bigger impact for foster children in our region.

We sat long enough that the table next to us turned over and I briefly noted a woman organizing herself beside us. No coffee cup in her hand. Older. Shabby. A dirty, red ski cap. A stack of worn notebooks. A dirty, frayed canvas bag. And, a phone charger that seemed out-of-place.

It was a cold day. A good day to seek refuge in a warm place.

Homeless. That’s what flickered through my mind as my friend and I continued our discussion which was punctuated with expressions of frustration with the ongoing suffering of children in foster care and self congratulations on the few small ideas we had come up with that we thought might make a difference in getting more members of the DC-metro community involved.

We joked as we were winding up that we had coffee’d until lunch and that maybe we should just go grab a bite. At that, the woman next to us laughed. “You two certainly do have a lot to talk about,” she said.

And then she asked us why we were involved with kids in foster care and she told us what she thinks is wrong with the way kids are being raised today: They are not loved and respected.

She mentioned that her husband had died shortly after her twins were born. She talked a little about her fears of a future raising three children alone.  She talked of her 2 – 3 jobs to make ends meet.

She told us about raising her children first in PG County in Maryland and then the move to South East DC. For those of you not familiar with DC, SE is one of the most challenging neighborhoods in the city.

She told us how teachers at the kids’ SE DC schools would ask her why her kids were different from other kids. And then told us about her kids expressing their surprise at how different the SE DC kids were from them. And their asking her why that was the case.

Her fierce love and support for her kids was palpable.

She bragged about her oldest daughter, who received a full-ride scholarship to Babson College in Boston, had graduated and was now looking at graduate programs in international business.  And she told us proudly about one of her twins, a daughter, who is currently in college, having received a grant from the Gates Foundation.

She topped off her proud mother speech by telling us about her son, the other twin. A boy born with speech and retardation issues, who she had been able to get extra support for through a DC after-school program and who is now attending a local community college.

And then she told us about earning her own college degree…then her advanced degree… and now the certification she is now working toward.

I do agree with this stranger at the next table over, I don’t think the answer to changing the horrible outcome statistics for kids in foster care is about focusing on budgets and bureaucracy.

What will change those stats is finding ways to make sure that the professionals, foster parents and other caregivers and members of the community are working together to help ensure that all foster children are loved and supported.

I know that that sounds so simplistic, how could that possibly be the answer? But then I think about my much-loved nieces and nephews and the incredible children, young people and adults they are and I know that while it’s not the whole answer, it would certainly get foster kids a great deal farther than what they are getting from the Foster Care System today.

In the meantime, my New Year’s Resolution — Don’t judge a book by its cover.

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More People, Working Together, can Make Change a Reality for Children in Foster Care

I was invited to attend the Metropolitan Council of Governments Annual Meeting & Awards Luncheon in recognition of the work I do with the Wednesday’s Child program in the DC-Metro area.  Click here to see my speech.

As I said at the luncheon today, if this award means anything, I hope it means that more people find more ways to make more of a difference for children in foster care.

There are so many ways to get involved from the obvious fostering and adoption– to mentoring to becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA)– to photographing children who might otherwise have no pictures of their childhoods– to simply sharing your interest or skill with a child or group of children in a one-time program.

If you are interested in making a difference in the life of a child/ren in foster care and live in the VA/MD/DC area –  contact Beverly Howard, Fairfax Families4kids, Fairfax County, VA at Beverly.Howard@fairfaxcounty.gov or click here to learn about nationwide opportunities to make a difference.

If you are interested in learning about the award, here’s a link to David Robertson’s introduction.  For those of you who know me personally — you will be shocked to see me in a dress! 😉

Here’s the text from my speech:

I could stand up here and tell you all about myself.  But my life is well documented.  Just call my parents, they will be happy to tell you the good… the bad. And even the ugly.

But this award isn’t about me. It’s about the many children in foster care for whom important life events are rarely noted, much less documented.

When I learned that many of the children who appear on Wednesday’s child describe the time they spend with Barbara Harrison as the best day of their lives,  I wanted to do something to help preserve those wonderful memories. And, as a photographer, it was obvious what I could do.

It’s been incredibly rewarding to meet the amazing Wednesday’s Children and to work with great partners like COG, NBC and Freddie Mac. And while I’ve witnessed many heartbreaking stories, my involvement with Wednesday’s Child has also meant sharing in the joy of newly expanded families.

And it was through my work with Wednesday’s Child that I became involved with FF4kids, a unique group mentoring program  for foster children, where I document not just one event… but many events for the kids.

Kids in foster care are virtually invisible in this country. And when they do come to light, we see things like the fact that foster children are often grossly overmedicated and mistreated by the people charged with caring for them.

Things are not going to change for kids in foster care until we have more professionals working in the system who are as committed and caring as Kamilah Bunn – COG , Charelia Bazemore, DC and Fairfax County’s/Fairfax Famiies4kids DR. Beverly Howard. And more companies like Freddie Mac. And more elected officials like Michael Frey, Fairfax County Supervisor. And more members of the community like Molly and Brian, who adopted the boy they mentored. And Kathy, who has stuck by the boy she mentored for more than 8 years and can take much of the credit for the amazing man he is becoming. And Carmen, who is part mentor and part mother to many kids in foster care. More people like these, working together, can make change a reality.

Every child deserves to have people in their lives who think they are important and make them feel special. If this award means anything, I hope it means that more people find more ways to make more of a difference for children in foster care.

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