“I met with Jennifer and Jessica because I was intrigued with the tech aspect of their nonprofit and how they wanted to use technology to improve the lives of kids. I helped push legislation for The Family Stability and Kinship Care Act [in 2015] and have always felt that involving tech was the missing piece in child welfare. So, I’m glad to be a part of this organization.”
Jelani played an important role in bringing Connect Our Kids to where it is today through educating our team, making introductions to leaders in the field, and spreading awareness about our organization. Thanks to Jelani's leadership, he helped make it possible for nearly 8,000 children to connect with extended family members and other caring adults.
Jelani’s personal investment in the Connect Our Kids mission can be traced back to his own time growing up in the foster care system. He became a child in foster care at the age of 8 due to his father not being there and his mother’s struggle with mental health. As a child, Jelani lived in six foster homes over ten years before aging out at 18. To this day, he accredits his mentor that he met in high school for helping him get his life on track and for him getting accepted into the University of Buffalo, which then led him to the Howard University School of Law.
“I’ve always been told I’m smart, which okay, fine. But if I didn’t have that nurturing relationship...I would’ve been the smartest person in prison. That's the power of mentorship. You need someone to nurture your innate gifts. Mentoring is everything, especially to foster youth.”
Knowing how impactful a mentor can be in the life of a child in foster care can explain why Jelani became a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in 2010. CASA is an organization that develops special relationships with children in foster care to advocate for their voice in the courtroom, where destinies are determined. Jelani feels that more CASA volunteers can extend their advocacy beyond the courtroom by using Connect Our Kids tech tools to help social workers find families and other critical relationships for vulnerable children.
Currently, 200 CASA volunteers use our technology.
"It's an incredible idea to use tech to find supportive adults who could step into the lives of kids in foster care. I know there are more motivated CASA volunteers across the nation who would be willing to really get into this family search work to help social workers with the challenges that come from family search and engagement."
In addition to his work with Connect Our Kids, Jelani has contributed a lot to CASA as a nationally recognized advocate and speaker. He has inspired leaders and volunteers at the National and Colorado CASA conferences as well as at the College of William and Mary, which is where Jelani met with two women that led him to write an essay for a book from CASA, "Reshuffled: Stories of Hope and Resilience from Foster Care."
According to Jelani, the opportunity to tell his personal story and offer his expertise in a book speaks to the spirit of what CASA is all about.
“There were these CASA volunteers that came up with the idea of creating a book because of my speech. They didn’t want my story to just stay in that room. They thought it’d be useful to give messages of hope, inspiration and motivation through the stories of former foster youth who are now adults.”
To hear more from our incredible friend and strategic advisor, Jelani, and why he supports Connect Our Kids, check out his interview.