by Lou Mancinelli
President Obama declared May of this year National Foster Care Awareness Month. In Philadelphia in 2012 more than 4,000 children under the age of 21 were provided for by the state’s foster care program, according to Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.
One of those young individuals raised in the program from when she was 11 until she aged out of the system at 18 is Constance Krebs, whose biological family lived in Mt. Airy for eight generations until Krebs moved to Abington within the past year.
Krebs, 29, is a co-founding chair of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA), a group dedicated to promoting awareness and continuing support for foster care, both alumni and current members. The Pennsylvania chapter was officially established this March.
“What happens to that person who is 22 and lost her medical benefits from the state and doesn’t know how to hold down a job?” Krebs asked rhetorically. “That’s where FCAA comes in.”
The group is like an extended family. It hosts family picnics and holiday gatherings and keeps foster care brothers and sisters connected with one another and supporters. Members work with youth advocacy and other groups to promote foster care awareness.
“Everyone felt so empowered,” said Krebs about her recent visit to the second annual Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth Shadow Day, hosted at the White House in May. Participants were afforded the opportunity to shadow a Congressperson for a day.
Between first and 12th grade, Krebs was in and out of 15 different schools. Now she is a sophomore business student at Gwynedd Mercy College in Lower Gwynedd. One wonders whether she felt empowered or confused or just scared when at age 11 she decided she needed to get out of her chaotic household. She was raised in Mt. Airy, the youngest of five. She attended the Houston School.
Her decision to go into foster care was a joint one she made with her birth mother. Her first experience living with a foster family was in Harleysville in the Souderton school district. “I might as well have been shipped across the country,” she said. “You really are thrown into other people’s family dynamics, their tradition, their religion.”
She stayed for three years. During that time she saw her birth family, sometimes on weekends, other times on holidays. But balancing her biological family and foster family presented a challenge. She didn’t want to offend either family. She loved them both.
Krebs was out of foster care at 14 and back in again at 14, and she stayed in the program until she was 18. Her high school history includes Roxborough, Pennsbury and Northampton High Schools. At 18, she was a few credits shy of graduating. But when you’re going to high school and studying “at 18 when you’re trying to figure out where you’re gonna live, it’s a lot.” Instead, in 2002, Constance earned her GED.
Next Krebs followed her aspirations of event planning and enrolled at The Restaurant School in University City. She left in 2007 a few credits shy of a degree and started working and living in Mt. Airy. She has worked at Avenida Restaurant in Mt. Airy since it opened in 2010.
In May, the FCAA PA Chapter hosted a private screening at Avenida of “The Fosters,” a new series from executive producer Jennifer Lopez based on a foster family. Two more screenings are scheduled for June and July at a still to be determined location. The series began June 3 on the ABC Family network.
“In order to sign onto it, we [the local chapter] wanted to know ABC Family was in it for the cause and not just the bottom line,” said Krebs. “At the end of the day [the show] promotes awareness.”
Sometime last year Krebs had talked with a few foster care alumni and decided they should launch an official Pennsylvania chapter.
FCAA is a non-profit organization founded in 2004. Its mission is to promote opportunities to improve outcomes for alumni of foster care beyond age 18, the typical emancipation age, or even age 25, which is typically considered the upper end of transition age.
Constance has made a significant impact with public speaking engagements, peer education and fundraising efforts since aging out of the foster care system at age 18. She contributes by sharing her knowledge of the social service system in Pennsylvania, as well as lessons learned through her personal experience in child welfare.
She is a member of the Bucks County and Pennsylvania Youth Advisory Boards, the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Children’s Behavioral Health and the Philadelphia Compact Youth Committee, among others, all of which work to improve services for young people in foster care.
Krebs attributes her grit to the women in her family and her 20 foster sisters, and says “all of the women in my life, my mom and my grandmother, were a symbol of strength.” She knows her experience in foster care is different than others’. Some kids in the foster care system don’t have families to go home to.
“I wouldn’t say my family is perfect, but they are there,” said Krebs. “They are present … As an adult it’s something I can deal with in an appropriate way. As a child I just knew I had to go.”