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Sheila Jaffe

Cofounder, Felix Organization

"Kids in foster care are not bad or unruly. Their situation does not define them. They have the deck stacked against them from the outset ... If you show them the way and open up their world, they can reap enormous benefits.”

I started the Felix Organization in 2006 to provide a source of support and connection for youth in the foster care system. Since our inception, nearly 3,000 children in foster care from New York and Los Angeles have attended Camp Felix, our overnight camp program, and nearly 13,000 youth have also participated in Felix’s year-round opportunities, including after-school enrichment and theater outings.

The problem I’m trying to solve

There are over 400,000 children in the U.S. in foster care. Many of these kids are neglected and forgotten. Many reside in the inner city and don’t have the opportunity to get outdoors and experience nature in the summer months. They also suffer from much higher rates of mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression. All children deserve the many benefits of being immersed in nature, along with the added social and emotional benefits of attending overnight summer camps. As a result of our nature program, which includes hiking, swim instruction, rock climbing and more, our campers leave Camp Felix with improved physical and cognitive abilities and an appreciation for the natural world.

The moment that sparked my passion

I’m adopted and spent much of my adulthood searching for my birth family. I was introduced by a mutual friend to Darryl McDaniels from the rap group Run DMC, who was also searching for his biological parents. We met and over a three-hour lunch realized we both had the same burning desire to give back. As an adult, I can reflect on how the success I experienced in my career as an Emmy award-winning casting director was due in part to the support of my family throughout my life. Children don’t get to choose which family they end up with, or even if they end up with one at all.  

What I wish other people knew

Kids in foster care are not bad or unruly. Their situation does not define them. They have the deck stacked against them from the outset. They ended up in foster care through no fault of their own. Many are woken up in the middle of the night to be shuttled to yet another foster home. If you show them the way and open up their world, they can reap enormous benefits.

The Felix Organization also runs the Felix Friendship Circle, which provides year-round experiences for teens living in foster care in New York City and Los Angeles like Broadway shows. Several times a year, I take a bunch of girls to a performance and then out to dinner. At first, they only wanted to order burgers and fries. But as I took them to a variety of restaurants, they opened up and wanted to try new things, just like any other teen. They have the exact same dreams and desires as more privileged kids, and they deserve access to them.

Why my approach is unique

There are hundreds of social service agencies that focus on basic needs for children in foster care. Yet very few of these organizations focus on planting a seed of hope to help these children pursue their own goals. Each summer, we’re able to see in real time the benefits to our children of attending Camp Felix. Over 80 percent of campers’ parents and guardians say their child has more confidence, is happier, has healthier habits, and seems less anxious and angry. But we’re also unique because we stay in contact with our kids year-round. Our Beyond Camp program has awarded over $112,000 to more than 210 youth to pursue their dreams through extracurriculars. We also have Secret Santa gift-giving initiatives and our Felix Friendship Circle program. These all help our kids develop confidence and positive experiences to succeed in the world.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

It’s important to dream big but act small. When Daryl and I first met, we decided we wanted to start a city for foster children to live in, like Boys Town. But when we met with an accountant friend to discuss the idea, he warned us to slow down. He talked us into starting with a camp, which turned out to be the smartest thing. From a single summer camp, Felix has blossomed into five camp locations and a variety of programs that support foster kids throughout the year. One day, there will be a city. Right now, we’re happy with what we have.