Nebraska Nonprofit's Youth Exiting Foster Care Project: Peer-to-Peer Support Advocacy For Up To 50 Youth Between 14 To 24 Years Old, Most Referrals From Other Youth, Empowerment Is Key


Cindy Reed is helping give older foster kids a voice.

Reed is youth adviser for the Connected Youth Initiative — a package of resources for young people, ages 14 through 24.

The initiative serves youth in foster care and those who have “aged out” of the system — in other words, leave the program because they’re age 19.

It has expanded to include those in the juvenile justice system and homeless individuals and helps youth not connected to resources.

On a basic level, this is a peer-to-peer support system.

“They get to meet other people who have been situations like theirs and, maybe, some older youth who can give them advice and insight,” Reed said. “On the next level, it’s an advocacy group and our goal is change the systems that serve them to be better.”

Reed believes this can happen by young people telling their stories, sharing what did — and didn’t — work for them, saying what should continue and providing their ideas for change.

She knows it can be tough for kids who age out of the foster care system.

They might have no plan for where they will live next. They may not have been allowed to seek a job and haven’t been taught how to conduct themselves during a job interview.

“They’re getting ready to leave a system with no plan in place and so they’re going to be homeless with no job,” she said.

She noted other difficulties.

“Sometimes, they don’t have any other people to live with, to support them, to call when they need help or to spend Christmas with or to bring them a birthday card — those kind of normal family things.”

Here’s where Reed can help.

She works with youth, helping them determine what they want their future to look like.

If they want to pursue education past high school, she may visit a college with them. If their goal is a job, she may connect them with Metropolitan Community College, which has a career placement program.

With this program, youth can learn how do conduct themselves during a job interview and how to complete resumes.

Reed can relate to the youth and their situations.

She was 16 years old when she went into foster care and was separated from her siblings.

Reed believes she was fortunate because she was in just one foster home.

She aged out of the system when she was 19 and found what then was called the Nebraska Foster Youth Council.

Reed volunteered to do advocacy work, then was hired and worked while in college, starting a youth council in Omaha.

“It helped me discover my passion for foster care advocacy,” Reed said, adding she believes she’s successful in the current job, because of her experiences.

Reed went to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2009.

She is married and has three children and lives in Saunders County.

Reed was a stay-at-home mom for seven years, before coming to Fremont to start Youth Voice and Opportunity Passport.

Now, Reed works with up to 50 youth regularly. Youth can be referred to the program by any agency or anybody in the community.

Most referrals come from the young people she already serves.

“They know people who are experiencing the same things as them and so they say, ‘Hey, call Cindy and she can help.’ So that’s where the majority of my young people come from,” she said.

Reed connects the young people with resources, such as housing, employment, college information and, sometimes, funding for emergencies.

She’s helped them with tasks, such as opening a bank account — which can be intimidating to them.

“They don’t know what to ask,” she said. “So I’ll take them to the bank and introduce them to the people I know there and sit with them, and ask some questions so they know they need to get more information.”

Reed works to become acquainted the youths so they know they can call her when they need to talk.

“Or when they move and they just want someone to know where they’re at — they like to tell me,” she said.

Reed said she’s intentional about establishing relationships.

“It’s more important to me that I get to know them as a person than it is for me to check off accomplished goals,” she said. “It’s more important that they know I care about them than it is for me that they’re connected to every resource available.”

Reed knows the value of connection.

“Those permanent connections are what lead to individual success,” she said. “A lot of times, you just need to know that somebody’s on your side in order to push through.”

Reed helps youth still in foster care.

She can tell them about their caseworker and guardian ad litem (a guardian appointed to protect their interests).

“And that they (the youth) have the ability to reach out to them and have a voice,” she said.

Many times foster kids just want to be heard.

During her earlier years, Reed appreciated the Nebraska Foster Youth Council, which she said provided a needed sounding board — allowing her to express feelings and move on, instead of keeping everything inside.

Reed noted that her situation was a little different than what’s typical, however, because she was in one foster home and didn’t have to move around a lot.

Yet even in an ideal situation, a foster kid can feel like the extra person — like they’re not really anybody’s priority and they’ll have to figure out life on their own.

It can be very lonely.

So when kids find groups, like Youth Voice, it can allow them the space to talk through things and better control what life will look like, she said.

Those who know a young person who could benefit may contact Reed at 402-415-8512.

Reed is paid by the Hope Center for Kids-Fremont.

“My programs are housed under the Fremont Family Coalition,” she said. “It’s a collaboration in our community to serve unconnected youth.”

Reed enjoys her work.

“I love this job, because I have the opportunity to show the youth I serve what I believe is God’s love looks like and what another possibility of life can be like after foster care,” she said.

And she has future goals.

“I think it’s necessary for young people who’ve been through systems to be the ones running programs like this,” she said. “So I hope to equip the young people I’m working with to eventually be in a position to lead this work.”