April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The first time Akeeme Halliburton was placed in foster care, he was in middle school. His infant brother had been born with drugs in his system, so he and his siblings were removed from their mother’s care and taken into protective custody until alternate care was found. He and his younger brother jumped between foster homes for a few years before they were allowed to return home. But when Halliburton was attending Central High School, his mom became physically abusive, so he called Child Protective Services, who placed him and his siblings back into the system.

“There were good memories and also some bad,” Halliburton, now 20, says of his years in foster care. “When I was younger, I was more of a rebel. I didn’t know why I was in foster care, and I just wanted to go home. When I was older, I just wanted to make a good impression so I could find a better home.”

Halliburton was placed with a foster mom the first time, though their relationship was often strained. “I volunteered at Creighton [Hospital] a lot and always got home pretty late, so she called the cops on me.”

The second time was with a foster dad, who let him volunteer and have more freedom, but Halliburton only received one meal a day, never had proper clothing for winter, and spent a lot of his time alone.

Fortunately, the last foster home he was in was with a woman who provided quality care. “She understood and listened,” he says. “I was a lot more obedient, too, because of the good environment. She didn’t just want me there for money; she cared about me.” But, eventually, Halliburton grew old enough that he was no longer able to remain in foster care.

“When I was younger, I was more of a rebel. I didn’t know why I was in foster care, and I just wanted to go home. When I was older, I just wanted to make a good impression so I could find a better home.” – Akeeme Halliburton, former foster child

While there is always concern for children within the foster care system, there has been a surprising lack of concern in what happens to the youth who age out of foster care when they turn 19. It’s a frightening thought for many former foster care youth, who no longer have a home, steady income, emotional support, medical care, transportation, or education. Worse, the statistics are against them. One in five young people who age out of foster care will be homeless before age 21.

Fortunately, Halliburton heard about Project Everlast, a grassroots effort that promotes community resources to improve a youth’s opportunities and networks for housing, transportation, and health care during the transition to adulthood.

Project Everlast formed in 2007, when the Nebraska Children & Families Foundation met with a steering committee of Omaha youth, the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services, the Sherwood Foundation, and the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation. Together, the youth and the representatives of the organizations developed an innovative plan to help aged-out foster care youth with resources for housing, transportation, health care, education, employment, personal and community engagement, and daily living.

Now, with youth-driven councils all across Nebraska—in Omaha, Lincoln, Norfolk, Grand Island, North Platte, Scottsbluff, Geneva, and Kearney—Project Everlast is able to provide a source of peer-to-peer support and mentoring to members, as well as allow foster care youth to have a voice in advocating for changes in agencies and systems, locally and statewide. The councils are open to any youth or young adult with foster care experience between the ages of 14-24 and are supported by a Youth Advisor, who provides training and support.

Project Everlast also has several community partners in Omaha that work with them to create a network of support for youth in transition, including Family Housing Advisory Services, Child Saving Institute, Central Plains Center for Services, Omaha Home for Boys, Lutheran Family Services, Heartland Family Service, and Youth Emergency Services.

“Foster care can be a very isolating experience, and decreasing that isolation is a vitally important part of our work.” – Rosey Higgs, associate vice president of Project Everlast

“My foster mom told me about [Project Everlast],” Halliburton says. “I didn’t know what it was, but I had seen some fliers outside of my school. We went to a group one day, and after that, I just started going more often and getting more involved. They gave me all kinds of numbers to call for help and resources on how to age out of foster care. If I hadn’t found them, I wouldn’t have aged out with as many benefits.”

“Our work is guided by young people in foster care and alumni of foster care,” says Rosey Higgs, associate vice president of Project Everlast.

Higgs, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, had some past experience in launching new initiatives for domestic violence, homelessness, and HIV prevention. When she heard about Project Everlast, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it and add child welfare into her career expertise. “I was instantly drawn to its philosophy and was really energized by the amazing group of young people who were involved,” she adds.

Although she provides oversight and direction to the Project Everlast initiative of the Nebraska Children & Families Foundation, Higgs’ primary responsibility is to convene with community members, nonprofit agencies, the government, and young people to address barriers faced by youth in transition from foster care to adulthood.

“While there is still work to be done, we are well on our way to creating a culture that seeks out and honors the inputs of [those with foster care familiarity] in administering services for youth in foster care and alumni…People who have experienced foster care have important insight to share as we write child welfare policy and create new programs.”

Other organizations focused on foster care often talk about transitioning foster care youth to adulthood through achievements of independence, but Higgs thinks that’s inaccurate. “Hardly anyone lives independently,” she states. “Most people have a network of trusted friends and family that they depend on for advice from time to time or even just for a social outlet. Foster care can be a very isolating experience, and decreasing that isolation is a vitally important part of our work.”

“Young people aging out of foster care require ongoing support so they can reach their full potential and take advantage of the opportunities Nebraska offers to other children their age,” says Mary Jo Pankoke, president of the Nebraska Children & Families Foundation.

Pankoke, who holds an undergraduate degree in education and a graduate degree in psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been with the foundation from the beginning of its creation in the 1990s. “We bring public and private sectors together throughout the state to prevent problems that threaten the well-being of our children. It’s a wonderful mission that motivates me every day.”

“Young people aging out of foster care require ongoing support so they can reach their full potential and take advantage of the opportunities Nebraska offers to other children their age.” – Mary Jo Pankoke, president of Nebraska Children & Families Foundation.

Having seen the results of Project Everlast’s work, Pankoke knows the initiative is going in the right direction. “In just two years, measuring success in Omaha, more youth received a high school diploma or GED and went on for more training…the number of youth with a paying job [went] from 55 percent before Project Everlast to 68 percent…[and] an increase in youth having full-time, stable employment [went] from 26 percent to 53 percent.”

Higgs and Pankoke both believe that it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure that all youth have a fair shot at becoming successful adults.

“I always encourage people to think about how they support their own children as they prepare for adulthood—youth in transition from foster care need exactly the same things,” says Higgs.

“We all win if youth can receive a high school diploma, prepare for meaningful work, find emotional support and connection when they need it, and have a safety net when money or housing becomes an issue,” says Pankoke.

As for Halliburton, his time in foster care and with Project Everlast has left quite the impression. He’s currently looking at colleges where he could study sociology and social work. “[Project Everlast] has been phenomenal,” he says. “Everything they’re doing is for the good of foster care…Any kids aging out of foster care should really think about coming in and getting involved because it’s a great asset.”

For more information, visit projecteverlastomaha.org.