Shalita O'Neale fosters change in the community through organization
By Tiffany Watson, March 17, 2017
After Shalita O’Neale experienced the loss of her mother when she was 3-years-old and physical abuse by relatives and hardships while in foster care, she became a trailblazer who has turned tragedy to triumph.
O’Neale, a Bowie resident, has always been heavily involved in child welfare training, foster youth advocacy and connecting young professionals with a history of foster care, like herself, through local and national professional networking events. To this day, she desires to help adults from foster care secure enough resources to ensure improved outcomes for their future.
“My goal is to dispel the stigma associated with foster care,” O’Neale said. “There are so many of us ‘alumna of foster care’ doing great things nationally. We are not out there robbing, stealing and being destructive. Rather, we are successfully changing the world one day at a time.”
In 2008, O’Neale founded Hope Forward Inc., a nonprofit organization that connects transitioning and former foster youth to housing, financial assistance, health care and others who have experienced foster care. She has been able to raise more than $2 million for Hope Forward over the past eight years.
In 2012, she founded Fostering Change Network LLC (FCN,) an organization that has connected thousands of professionals from foster care through its social media platforms and a Quarterly Alumni Powerhouse Networking Conference held in Maryland and now in New York City, Ohio and California.
On May 19, O’Neale will launch the FCN Foundation to provide small start-up grants and Pay It Forward Loans to “alumni adoptees” looking to build or expand their own organizations and businesses and pursue opportunities that they otherwise would not be able to afford.
O’Neale said she lived a tough life as a foster child.
“My mother was murdered when I was 3-years-old. I was in kinship care until I was 13, and then I went into foster care officially,” O’Neale said. “Then, I aged out of the foster care system at 21-years-old.”
O’Neale said she spent most of her life living with a grandmother and uncle who were verbally and physically abusive due to alcoholism. She also lived for a time in a group home and then with a foster family before finally going to college.
“I felt like I was being punished for being an orphan,” O'Neale said. “It wasn’t my fault that I didn’t have parents, but it seemed that way.”
O’Neale went on to graduate from the University of Maryland College Park with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and also holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She gained 13 years of experience in launching, building and sustaining nonprofit organizations, businesses and nonprofit programs to help other foster youth visionaries do the same.
“I want these alumna of foster care, as I like to call them, to become who they are today because someone took a chance on them. We can shift the perspective. We can share information about business and connect with other organizations,” O'Neale said. “It’s about removing those barriers that still follow us from foster care so that they can actually have the resources they need to contribute to the world the way they want to.”
O’Neale refers to herself and others who aged out of foster care as “alumna of foster care,” because they are not letting their past experiences hold them back from becoming entrepreneurs, business owners and jump-starting their desired careers. She said her many years spent in foster care encouraged her to make a difference in the lives of other young adults who have aged out of the system and seek to contribute to the economic development in their communities.
The organization is run by team members who assist O’Neale in creating the Quarterly Alumni Powerhouse Networking Conference, which supports and highlights the personal and professional endeavors of alumni adoptees and alumna of foster care throughout Maryland and across the country.
“So many youth leave foster care with no connection. These APNC conferences have provided alumna a sense of belonging and family, with a touch of professional and personal development,” Jamole Callahan, FCN senior consultant, said. “APNC brings them to a supportive, professional space where they will promote their business endeavors, get feedback from other foster care alumni on how to build and expand their businesses and non-profits and connect professionally and personally with other adult professionals from foster care.”
O’Neale has become well-known for holding several APNC events since 2015 — two in Maryland and one in Oakland, Calif. APNC keynote speakers include Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), author and activist George Fraser, Steve Biondolillo of Biondolillo Associates Inc., Chief of Police for Baltimore County James Johnson, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels from the legendary hip-hop group RunDMC and Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore.)
Susan Emfinger, senior consultant for Fostering Change Network LLC, said she is also an “alumna of foster care” and working with FCN has been a life-changing experience. She said those who attend the conferences gain information about how to build a business and a network, money management, buying their first home, retirement and becoming a leader.
“In the 100-plus years of foster care, there has never been an organization which considers the professional aspect of alumna foster care lives,” Emfinger said. “FCN created these conferences to give voice to the other side of those who have been in foster care. We grow up, we can help each other, support each other professionally. It’s a huge need, and I’ve never found another outlet that has done that for me.”
O’Neale will continue her mission to dispel the foster care stigma for youth and alumna by sharing their stories and continuing the healing that has taken place through her organizations’ network. She hopes the world will see young people and adults from foster care as contributors and success stories instead of something that is broken and needs to be fixed. The fire in her won’t let her rest until she has seen her vision become a reality, she said.