By the time Kevinee Gilmore was in college, it seemed like she really was beating all the odds. In the foster care system since she was 13, the oldest of five, she’d never expected to succeed in school, not to mention graduate from Cleveland State with a Bachelors degree in social work.
What people didn’t see, though, was how hard she had to fight during those college years to find a safe place to sleep on vacations and school breaks, and how often there was simply no place to go. She crashed on friends’ couches, snuck into her brother’s independent living placement, went to shelters, slept in her car, did whatever it took. To this day, like many former foster kids, she still hates holidays. “When I aged out of foster care in 2002,” says Gilmore, “I immediately saw that this was wrong. How does it happen? I went to college for housing. And it was just a lonely place. I was still homeless on my holiday breaks. I was homeless for Thanksgiving. I was homeless for Christmas. Housing is the most critical thing on the hierarchy of needs.”
[photo via @hashtagfostercare on Instagram]
Gilmore went on to graduate school, and worked for both John Kerry and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, even publicly introducing Clinton herself to a crowd at one Cleveland event. She became a mother. She bought her first house, worked as a consultant/advocate for foster youth. She started a social media campaign called (@hashtagfostercare on Instagram), enlisting the help of celebrities to bring awareness to the needs of foster kids. And she never stopped dreaming that she would one day create a safe haven space – or a network of them – for foster kids in crisis who had aged out of the system but still needed support. Today, she’s making that dream a reality – she’s just exceeded her ioby fundraising goal for renovations to the house, which is already open to kids in crisis.
a safe haven with someone who’s been there
It’s what Gilmore wishes had been available to her, during college. “It would have been like, ’Oh, cool, a girl who actually graduated from college? You’ve really got your degree? Wait, you were really in foster care? Oh my god, I can do it, because you did it,’” explains Gilmore. “‘And then I come over to your house, you empower me, you expose me to some opportunities. You’re not just trying to house me, you’re not asking me for money. And I’m staying with you for a week and then I have this ongoing relationship with you and with this team of people and this cool network on social media that makes me feel like being a foster kid is the shit?’ That’s what’s needed. I needed a me, back then, to get me over the hump.”
Her drive to get it done comes partly from a desire to see foster care organizations being operated not as business ventures, but as missions. “My work really manifested out of rejection and learning what this system is – it’s a business,” she explains. “Foster care is a twenty-six billion dollar industry. Seven people get paid off one foster kid: the social worker, the therapist, the drug administration because they’re giving them all these meds, the magistrates, all these people get paid because this one kid came into care, right?”
The foster care system can be especially cold, as Gilmore knows, for older kids. “Foster care is like Hollywood, man,” she says. “You’ve got a short amount of time to get the spotlight, and once you hit a certain age, it’s like ‘you’re not going to look good anymore in front of a crowd of funders, go ahead, you should get over your foster care experience. You should be financially secure, you should be emotionally stable, and all that stuff that happened to you? Get over it!’”
Gilmore envisions her safe house being a place of connection, community, and positive foster culture. “Come to my place,” she says. “I’m a single mom, I kinda did it wrong, I can show you how to do it better. If you need a place to stay, call me. If you’re aged out and you’re in college and you need a place to crash for a week, call me. The goal is to have 13 of these safe haven houses in areas where I was in foster placements.”
Gilmore’s work is healing for her, too. “You know, I’m still healing,” she says. “I’m just not over what happened to my family. So every time I help, there’s a little piece that heals. I have the potential to shed light on some of the darkest places. Some of the nastiest things that have happened to people in care, and I can have them come out and beat their chest, like ‘I was a foster kid!’, and not this shame.”
If you call Kevinee and get her voicemail, you’ll hear her ebullient voice signing off with “I’ll see YOU at the top.” You can tell she means it – and that she wants us all to be there, together.
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