Former foster youth launches non-profit, works to change systemic problems in foster care
by Kim Phagan-Hansel
With a mother who struggled with addiction issues, Sixto Cancel was just 11 months old when he entered foster care. Though he was eventually returned to his mother’s care, he re-entered foster care when he was about 5 years old. And even after he was adopted, Cancel’s journey with foster care was far from over. Adopted into an abusive family, Cancel ended up couch surfing from ages 13 to 15 before, once again returning to the foster care system.
Eventually Cancel aged out of care, but the imprint of his childhood experiences have continued to stay with him. While some people may have chosen to give up on themselves, Cancel found himself compelled to find a way to fix the system that so gravely failed him.
“I grew up in care,” Cancel said. “I think it’s the biggest form of social injustice.”
Cancel has wasted little time thinking about the injustice he’s experienced in his own life at the hands of the child welfare system, but instead has chosen to do something about it. From a young age, Cancel became involved in various child welfare organizations working toward improvement. At just 15, he joined the National Foster Care Youth Alumni Council and has worked with a variety of organizations on policy and advocacy work to change and improve the system. In 2015, Cancel was named a White House Champion of Change for foster care.
While still in college at Virginia Commonwealth University, Cancel founded Think of Us, a Commitment of Action for the Clinton Global Initiative University, designed to utilize technology to improve the foster care system and outcomes for kids in care. Started in 2014, the organization is supported by Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, among others.
“There was no other space to do the work in,” Cancel said. “So we decided to create a non-profit to push the boundaries.”
Stated on the Think of Us website is, “Think of Us believes that merely surviving to adulthood is not enough. Youth deserve the opportunity to become what they aspire to be. Our ultimate goal is for foster youth to successfully transition into a prosperous adulthood.”
Focused on three areas of technology development — advocacy, services and support — one of the organization’s first products includes the development of an app called Unify, which helps kids in care set goals and identify the steps needed to reach them.
“It’s specifically focused on young people in the foster care system,” Cancel said. “This program helps them create a team of people who will help them navigate the system.”
Currently in the prototyping phase with about 200 people testing the program, Cancel hopes to roll out the final version of the app sometime in 2017. When it is released, the app will be available to agencies to help them co-navigate the system with teens and young adults in foster care.
Another program that has been created is the Life Skills Tools library, which provides young adults with interactive videos that help explain various life skills from applying for jobs to renting an apartment. In the early stage of development are other apps that will help former foster youth navigate a variety of life decisions.
Even as Cancel works at Think of Us to create new ways to help children in care, he’s also working to broaden that work across the country. With a goal to create additional synergy around technology, Cancel and the Think of Us team led the effort to create the first White House Foster Care and Technology Hackathon in May around National Foster Care Month to bring together technology experts and child welfare officials to build technology-based answers to solve problems in the child welfare system.
“For the field right now, we need to relook at permanency,” Cancel said. “How can we knock down as many barriers with technology.”
That Hackathon has led to several other Hackathons around the country, all designed to enhance the foster care system to create better outcomes for kids in care.
“It’s a practice of how to solve problems in child welfare,” Cancel said.
Whether it’s creating his own products at Think of Us or helping to grow the use of technology to change foster care nationwide, Cancel is driven by his foster care experiences and desire to make things better for other children in care.
“Our system does not have the tools to serve families,” Cancel said. “I really want to reform the system. Someone needs to pay attention.”
For more information on Think of Us, visit http://thinkof-us.org.
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