A local woman is making far-reaching, dynamic waves from within a small, unassuming facility on First Avenue in Seaside.
Celeste Bodner is the founder and executive director of FosterClub, a national network well known in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere across the country for connecting and representing foster youth and reforming policies and practices related to the system.
If you asked native Oregonian Bodner about her life-changing efforts, though, she immediately would reference the young people with whom she works, because to her, they are the game-changers — strong, capable and resilient. She is the coach, guiding and cheering them on from the sidelines through her organization.
Bodner recently brought more recognition to her young people and FosterClub when she shared her story in MORE magazine’s July/August 2015 edition, guest edited by First Lady Michelle Obama. Bodner was featured along with four other individuals in a section titled “Women Working Wonders,” which highlighted their work with youth across the country. She was included in the article upon nomination from a White House staff member who remains anonymous, even to Bodner.
Although being featured in a magazine article involved an airplane flight and a photo shoot in New York City, both activities that Bodner dislikes, she was happy to promote FosterClub.
From a simple website run from Bodner’s home with the help of her sister, the organization has grown to an approximately $1.6-million operation with 40,000 members and national name recognition. The website also includes an online training portal, used by about 8,000 foster parents.
It all started about 20 years ago, when Bodner was introduced to two people who irreversibly changed her life.
In 1994, while living in Portland, Bodner and her husband met Terry and Gary, then ages 12 and 10, through a day laborer hired occasionally by Bodner’s husband. The boys were the sons of the employee’s girlfriend.
Bodner was 26 at the time, and she coached youth sports as a volunteer. She enjoyed being around young people, so when the boys came to the Bodners’ house looking for their mother or her boyfriend and had nowhere to go, Bodner was happy to give them a snack and let them hang out.
Over time, it became increasingly clear there was nowhere safe to drop them off, Bodner said. Snacks turned into dinners; dinner turned into overnight stays. At last, Bodner knew she had to get child protective services involved in the situation.
Through a process that took three months, it was revealed the Bodners were whom Terry and Gary identified as the most stable adults in their lives. The couple was asked if they would provide temporary foster care for the children.
“The boys entered the foster care system at the same time we did,” Bodner said.
A discrepancy she noticed, however, was that she received a 40-hour training to learn the system and other resources for support and education. The boys, however, were given no information.
“To not give them any tools to navigate the system seemed very odd to me,” Bodner said.
When she sought a peer support group for Terry, she was unknowingly directed by a therapist to a group for juvenile offenders, an association that disheartened and appalled both foster mom and son.
“Needless to say, we didn’t go again,” she said.
Faced with a lack of resources for foster youth, Bodner took matters into her own hands. In 1999, she created a resource using a tool still fairly untested as a social medium at the time: the Internet. She made a website featuring message boards where foster youth could share their stories and give one another support and informal education. She called it FosterClub.
The following year, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative asked if FosterClub would like to take its operation to the next level by receiving a $180,000 grant. That was the year the network got its nonprofit designation and became incorporated.
In 2002, FosterClub was contracted by the state of Oregon to host the Oregon Teen Conference. Bodner, with the help of her family and friends, led interactive workshops for participants, and the event went well, she said.
In 2003, after Bodner moved back to Seaside bringing FosterClub with her, the organization was asked to lead a similar conference in Montana. Bodner did not have family and friends to help, so she turned instead to three youth leaders with experience in the foster care system. They helped her run the event, and during a question-and-answer panel, Bodner realized something: “These young people are way better at leading this conference than me or my friends could ever be.” They had insider knowledge, personal experiences and could make a unique connection to participants.
FosterClub’s All-Star Internship Program began the next year as a way to provide training and facilitate even more opportunities for foster youth alumni to educate their peers, bring awareness to the demographic and spearhead change in the foster care system through policy and practice reformation.
In 2004, Bodner and six foster kids formed the first “All-Star” group to help Bodner host teen conferences in Colorado and Oregon.
The group set out for Colorado in a $3,000 RV, spray-painted yellow and purple and fondly dubbed “The Groove Mobile.” Unfortunately the vehicle’s wheels had been put on backward, which caused the first of multiple breakdowns and pit stops along the journey. Nevertheless, Bodner said, they rolled into town a few hours before the conference at 8 a.m.
“We went in, and those All-Stars rocked that conference,” she said.
That first challenging summer was when Bodner adopted the concept of “game face,” which soon became a FosterClub credo. The idea, she said, is to show determination, perseverance and confidence in the face of obstacles — or keeping your game face on.
The Groove Mobile was retired after the first year, but it was clear to Bodner they were onto something. Armed with a developed curriculum, the following year’s program went more smoothly. Since then, the All-Star program has continually developed and evolved, mostly from suggestions given by participants themselves.
Now the program features two seven-week summer sessions in Seaside, with a crossover week in the middle where the team from the first session gets to meet and interact with the second team. The teams — groups of 18- to 24-year-olds who are selected to represent a diversity in culture, race, educational experience, skills, personal qualities and in foster care background — are given an intense training the first two weeks of each session. Then the team members are dispatched on assignments individually or in small groups. Those assignments usually involve speaking at events, leading conferences, doing policy work or other activities.
The young adults reside at the organization’s home on First Avenue during their sessions. Their experience is sponsored by individual states or other funding FosterClub receives through grants and donations. The criteria to be an All-Star are minimal; from 300 applicants, more than half would qualify, Bodner said.
“We want young people who are committed to giving back and improving the system and leveraging their stories to do that,” she said.
FosterClub considers the All-Star program to be a year-long commitment with seven weeks of in-resident training. After the summer sessions are completed, the young adults return home, to school and work, but they continue to be advocates for foster youth and consultants for FosterClub.
“FosterClub is an organization, but it’s also a movement,” Bodner said.
The organization has four mission areas: providing training and events; cultivating young leaders; spearheading policy and system change; and increasing membership and outreach. In the background, Bodner and her 11 staff members are working diligently and modestly to advance those missions.
Bodner used a sports analogy to describe her role in the network. She identifies herself as the coach and the foster youth, past and present, as the players. She knows they’re best suited for playing the game; FosterClub is just designed to help them hone their skills and give them access to demonstrate those skills in different arenas or fields.
The All-Star Internship Program’s resident portion is like spring training, Bodner said. From there, when FosterClub gets contracted to put on or participate in an event, workshop or training, the organization dispatches the young leaders in its network. Those activities — talking on panels, leading workshops, drafting legislative proposals, doing internships — are opportunities for them to get drafted or play the regular season, said Jessica Gibson, communications and partnership administrator. Some opt to stay in the minor league, and some will go on to the majors.
When the recent magazine article featuring Bodner was published, many foster care alumni in the FosterClub network shared, liked and commented on links to the story on social media websites. Such actions increase the organization’s visibility, Gibson said, but it was clear from the comments the players also were “proud to see their head coach get the recognition she deserves.”