Elissa Garr

Potomac, MD

"My encore is nothing I had ever imagined I would be doing. But once you meet these kids, and get involved, you can't stay away from it."

It was through my husband that I first learned about the organization that would become my encore work.

It is called First Star and it’s an organization that shines a light on the issues of child neglect and abuse, plus the problems of the nation’s foster care system, while also helping foster youth succeed in education and life.

Early in its organizational life, First Star needed a volunteer executive director. With my background in both teaching and political relations, my husband suggested to First Star founder Peter Samuelson that I do the job for a while until they could hire someone full-time.

Within a few years, I became president of First Star’s Greater Washington Academy, a program that provides intense programming and services to ensure foster youth have the skills to graduate high school, enter college and ultimately graduate college.

This intensive program, which includes a four-week residential component on the campus of the George Washington University, is a summer immersion where the students live in a dorm, eat with other students and get a feel for what it’s like to go to college. During the regular school year, our volunteers meet once a month with the foster kids, and their parents, to stay in touch and keep them on track. We do “What if” exercises – What if I lose my license? What if I miss my class? What if I lose my books?

As of summer 2016, we’ve had eight seniors who have graduated high school and been accepted into college – three with full scholarships to four-year universities and two to community colleges.

My encore is nothing I had ever imagined I would be doing. I had enjoyed teaching kindergarten and first and second grades. But dealing with high school kids was not something I really wanted to do.

But once you meet these kids, and get involved, you can’t stay away from it. These are phenomenally resilient, talented, amazing kids. And you become, I did anyway, very close to them. You literally watch them grow, from 9th grade when they are five-feet tall to when they graduate at six-feet tall! It’s very meaningful. I see the results. I see the grades come in. I’ve had kids gain eight grade levels in reading. You can’t but feel good about that.

My latest encore is becoming President of a new entity, the First Star Institute, which has taken over the policy and best practice area of First Star. We issue reports on foster youth, file amicus briefs in the courts and do research on reforms that work. I feel as if I am suing my life skills, especially the managerial ones. Those never go away. Once you’re OCD, you’re always OCD.

 

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