Aubrie Simpson-Gotham taught in some of the most impoverished schools around America’s oldest city. Yet she didn’t feel she was doing enough.
“As a teacher, I saw there were so many needs in the community,” explained Simpson-Gotham, who began looking for volunteer opportunities around St. Augustine, Florida. “On the nonprofit side, I saw we could do more.”
Volunteering with foster families led her and some friends to the realization they could make a bigger impact by creating Fostering Connections St. Johns. Since its inception in 2019, the organization has found its niche in St. Johns County by focusing on students in the foster care system who are as young as 12 and as old as 22.
“While the rest of the state privatized foster care, our county commissioners oversee the program here,” she said. “But, because they can’t fund raise, resources are limited. We started Fostering St. Johns to raise money and create programs a government agency can’t do.”
Simpson-Gotham found kindred spirits in Megan Vidal and Spencer Hooker, who run The Kookaburra, a popular American-Aussie string of coffee shops. They agreed to host the initial Career Readiness Academy. Students were there, socially distant and ready to learn.
Simpson-Gotham knew exactly where to go for help with the financial education component. Matt Price, a commercial banker with Regions Bank in Jacksonville, provided the connection.
“Aubrie was the first person I met when I started Leadership St. Johns County,” Price said. “She was very passionate in describing her organization, and I immediately knew that I needed to connect her to Alicia Somers. I knew that if those two people met, something good would come out of it.”
Something did, and it’s just the start.
Somers is Regions’ financial wellness manager for Northeast Florida. She immediately agreed to lead an interactive session called Banking Basics for Students. In a virtual class focused on everything from balancing a budget to avoiding identity theft, Somers realized she was working with students who have seen a lot already.
“As a group that’s been in foster care, these students have had to ‘adult’ more,” Somers said. “They were aware of debit cards, checking on credit reports, savings goals. They were so far ahead.”
Simpson-Gotham brought in other experts to talk about job interviews, resume building and career goals. They talked about approaching the first job – and how to keep one.
The focus isn’t merely on finding part-time work, it’s about building a foundation for a lifetime of employment.
An accountant explained pay stubs and withholdings. A career counselor provided assessments for each student. Employers talked about skills that are in demand. And a real-world segment focused on budgets and unexpected expenses.
“When students age out of foster care, their support services are limited,” Simpson-Gotham explained. “They can get jobs, but they can’t always keep them because they haven’t always learned the proper life skills. So, part of our focus is ensuring them that they can support themselves independently and not fall into traps like losing jobs and housing. The sad truth is that close to 20% of foster children fall into homelessness after leaving the system.”
Fostering Connections also focuses on finding students that first job. Seven students are taking part in the initial wave of a job-shadowing and internship program, with more expected in 2021.
Because most of the job shadowing and internships don’t include salaries, fundraising efforts provide stipends to students – $200 for three hours of job shadowing and $10 an hour for up to 120 hours as interns. In addition, a community foundation grant provides the students with $150 to buy clothes and shoes.
“We want to give them a chance at success, and the community wants to work with our students,” Simpson-Gotham said. “The challenge right now is fund raising because most businesses have limited resources due to the impact of COVID-19.”
Before, Simpson-Gotham felt she wasn’t doing enough. Since then, her impact has touched many lives and garnered the support of local businesses and major companies like Regions. Her determination to do even more remains as strong as ever.
“We’re off to a great start,” she said. “But we’ve got work to do.”