Despite her perfectly coiffed appearance and confident mien, University of Maryland senior Shalita Savoy hardly fits the profile of the typical Capitol Hill intern.
The 20-year-old Savoy, one of eight former foster children taking part in the inaugural Congressional Foster Youth Internship Program, endured more than her share of heartache and abuse from her earliest days in the Baltimore projects.
When she was just 2 years old, her mother was murdered. Savoy, who never knew her father, was sent to live with her grandmother, an alcoholic. All around her, she saw the darker side of life: depredation, violence, crime. A cousin worked as a prostitute and sold her babies for money. Another was in and out of jail. An aunt would eventually die of AIDS.
By the time she was 5, Savoy had moved in with an uncle. And her life, which was plenty bad before, took a nosedive.
For eight years, Savoy remembers unending physical, mental and emotional abuse at the hands of her drug-addicted uncle, who happened to be a correctional officer. (In 2001, that same uncle was murdered during an attempted carjacking.) When she was 13, she went to live with a cousin, then bounced from foster care to a group home before enrolling at the University of Maryland at College Park.
“Everyone expected me to do just like my cousins: go to jail, [be involved in] prostitution, have babies,” said Savoy, a criminology major who plans for a career as a forensics technician.
“Looking at the surroundings and seeing what was around me — I used that as fuel to do better, because I knew I could do better,” added Savoy, who is slated to begin working for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) next week.
Helping Kids in Need
Co-sponsored by the Orphan Foundation of America and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, the Congressional Foster Youth Internship Program traces its provenance to OFA’s OLIVER Project, which since 1994 has brought foster youths to Washington annually for 10-day stints to discuss foster care issues with Members and policymakers.
“It was born out of frustration. There were all these wonderful kids and nobody ever talked about them,” recalled Eileen McCaffrey, executive director of OFA, a group dedicated to easing the transition to adulthood for foster children.
“I naively thought if I brought them to Washington people would take notice, and that turned out to be true,” she added.
Last year, OFA, which facilitates a number of scholarships for foster youths, teamed up with CCAI to bring two interns to Congressional offices, a move which proved particularly auspicious in furthering the goals of both organizations.
“Their role is to make the issue real for Congress and our role is to give kids a voice, so it’s the perfect marriage,” McCaffrey said of the OFA-CCAI partnership.
This year, the program got its official kickoff, when eight former foster youths, all in their early 20s, were selected from a national pool of nearly 40 applicants.
“Our real goal is next year to grow it to three kids from every state,” McCaffrey said.
The cost of the program, which averages $12,000 per intern, is partially financed by the Dave Thomas Foundation, which underwrote 50 percent of the total cost this year, or $50,000.
An additional pledge by a major corporate sponsor is in the process of finalization, according to McCaffrey.
Prior to the start of the internship, the students toured Senate and House offices and received pointers on everything from workplace etiquette to punctuality and partisanship during a day-long Capitol Hill orientation.
The interns, who are housed at Catholic University for the duration of the six-week program, will also participate in a variety of activities — ranging from a day at Camden Yards to more substantive offerings, such as Congressional briefings on adoption issues and a meeting with the White House’s national spokesperson for children in foster care, actor Bruce Willis.
First Day Jitters
Luis Carmody huddles around a table in a makeshift byway of Rep. Jim Cooper’s (D-Tenn.) fifth-floor Longworth House Office Building space, pouring over procedural papers on the Volunteer State Congressman’s constituent mail operation.
It’s his first day on the job, and already the 23-year-old intern has gotten a taste for the seat of powers’ bureaucratic inefficiencies.
“It took us about a half-hour for them to tell me to come back tomorrow,” Carmody said of his attempt to get a Congressional photo ID that morning.
Carmody is no stranger to the vagaries of federal bureaucracy, however. In his five years in the foster care system, he was in six different foster homes and one hospital, before his eventual adoption by an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston.
He has harsh words for a system, so out of touch with its clients it once assigned him a Spanish-speaking social worker because he is half Puerto Rican (Carmody does not speak Spanish). “Severely abusive homes,” where malnourishment and physical violence predominated, were de rigueur, he said. By the time he was 11, Carmody weighed just 49 pounds.
Today with his future looking increasingly bright, Carmody nervously anticipates a summer spent learning the ways of the corridors of power.
“The biggest thing I’m worried about is meeting the Congressman,” admitted Carmody, a double major in psychology and communications at Massachusetts’ Curry College. “He’s a Rhodes Scholar … [and] I don’t want to sound like an idiot.”
When he finally crosses paths with Cooper a few days later, Carmody said he felt immediately at ease.
“He was a nice guy,” said Carmody. “I just shook his hand [as] he was running out to a vote.”
“They really get it,” McCaffrey said of the lawmakers chosen to participate in the internship program. In March, CCAI and OFA sent notices to all Congressional offices; the first eight to respond were selected for the program. Most who answered the call are already part of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, a bipartisan group of Members affiliated with CCAI who aim to improve adoption policy and practice.
“Nothing is going to give them the education that they need to have [more] than these kids who have the experiential knowledge,” observed CCAI Executive Director Kerry Marks Hasenbalg.
“I think it’s a vitally important way to increase the awareness of lawmakers not only [of] these people as individuals but also the system as a whole,” agreed participating Rep. Cooper, a member of the Democratic Task Force on Children, who said he just recently became aware of the state of the nation’s more than half a million youths in foster care after discovering a friend had been a former foster child.
“Both political parties are brain dead when it comes to good solutions to these problems,” asserted Cooper, referring to reports of chronic mismanagement and neglect in the foster care system.
While most Members were randomly matched with students, where possible, assignments were made based on state affiliation.
Twenty-two-year-old New Yorker Jelani Freeman said when he got word he would be working for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) it was “a dream come true.”
“I love her. I’ve always loved her,” the Georgia State University graduate student gushed, noting that he just missed shaking his political heroine’s hand at a University of Buffalo town hall meeting during his undergraduate days.
“I guess this kinda makes up for it,” he grinned.
In addition to those already mentioned, the 2003 Congressional Foster Youth Interns and their assigned offices include: Jason Tollestrup, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho); Lisa Foehner, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.); Jackie Hammers, Sen. Charles Grassley
(R-Iowa); Thomas Woodfin, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.); and Lee Klejnot, Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio).