The interns, all former foster kids, had aged out of the system and made their way through college. Now they were in Washington, on Capitol Hill, working at the seat of power and, Lindsay Ellenbogen noticed, not always having the resources to succeed.
They had a willingness to learn — often they arrived early, stayed late and were eager to take on any task, even if it was just making copies or answering phones. But many had never been far from their homes. Few had ever spent time around politics or politicians. And when they asked questions about how to write a news release or listen in on a committee meeting, staffers were often too busy to show them the ropes.
“When you’re on Capitol Hill, you’re living three days before noon, so you can’t really stop and help somebody,” said Ellenbogen, who worked as a Hill staffer alongside the former foster youth.
Now, nine years later, Ellenbogen is supervising another group of former foster kids and making sure they have an easier transition into the world of a Washington intern.
Last year, Ellenbogen, a Chevy Chase resident who had worked as a Hill staffer for 10 years, joined the advisory board of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship program, or FYI.
The nonprofit organization was started in 2001 by a group of senators and congressmen to help educate lawmakers about issues in foster care, adoption and child welfare policies. Each summer for the past eight years, FYI has placed former foster children in congressional offices where they can advocate on behalf of a group they know well: the more than 460,000 youth in foster care across the country.
This summer, at the urging of Ellenbogen, there’s a new component to the program. The Sara Start Fund, named after Ellenbogen’s late grandmother Sara Rosenberg, provides the interns lessons in how to work and dress on Capitol Hill and a chance to shop for professional business attire.
Rosenberg was the person who “helped over the big transitions,” whether it was heading off to college or starting a new job, said Ellenbogen, who now works as an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York.
“In many offices, you’d have a progress report, and those are easy compared to the ones I had to give to my grandmother,” she said, laughing. “She really wanted to know what was going on.”
Rosenberg passed away in December. Ellenbogen said she began to look for a way of “honoring her role in my life and looking at our foster youth interns and how we could help them transition to Capitol Hill.”
Marisela Ortiz and Derrick Riggins had never worked far from home until they arrived in the District in June. But each had spent time in multiple homes growing up.
Ortiz, 23, said she was placed in foster care at 13 when her parents did not have enough time or resources to care for her and her eight siblings. She went through seven foster homes.
Riggins, 26, also entered the system at 13. He said his abusive father beat and threatened to kill him while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The Tampa resident had not thought about going to college until his sixth foster family, the only one that encouraged him to think about a career. Now, he is interning for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
According to a study by Casey Family Programs, which focuses on foster care and improving the child welfare system, only 3 percent of 660 former foster youths sampled had graduated from college.
Both Ortiz and Riggins now have college degrees; Riggins also has a master’s in social work. And both have decided to pursue careers that will allow them to work on child welfare issues.
Fifteen interns have been placed in congressional offices this summer; more than 200 had applied. One of the first things Ellenbogen did was give them what she calls “prep 101,” crash courses on Hill essentials such as the basics of writing news releases and the process of federal budgeting.
“We sat down and talked about what the budget and appropriations committees do. What’s the difference between the debt and the deficit? What are the parts of the federal budget?” she said.
Ortiz, who is interning for Sen. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), said Ellenbogen’s mentoring was one of the most helpful aspects of the program.
“It’s about giving you the resources to get where you want to get,” Ortiz said. “It’s not about pity.”
Ellenbogen raised $500 for each intern to have a shopping day at Macy’s. But it wasn’t a shopping spree. With Ellenbogen’s guidance and that of the store’s personal shoppers, the interns got a lesson in what and what not to wear on the Hill.
No five-inch heels, Ellenbogen said. “That’s not going to work on Capitol Hill if you’re running after a senator, bouncing in and out of hallways and meeting rooms.”
Flip-flops were also unacceptable, she said. And, like Rosenberg taught her before, clean hemlines were important.
Ortiz bought a few conservative suits, dresses and shoes in neutral colors. Riggins bought light dress and polo shirts, important for keeping cool in Washington’s humid summer. He said the shopping experience showed him how to look professional on a budget.
Ellenbogen also partnered with Bloomingdale’s, which provided the interns with accessories, and Matchbox Restaurant, which gave each a $50 gift card to help pay for a group lunch in June where they talked about their internship experiences.
She also got Under Armour to provide sportswear for the interns so they could participate in another Hill tradition, the after-work sports teams.
The clothes and softball games have all been great, Riggins and Ortiz said. But what has made the difference is the relationships formed.
“I don’t think it’s the fact that the funding was there,” Ortiz said. “It was Lindsay, honestly, being there for us.”
Riggins, who hopes to stay in the District and attend law school after his internship ends, said the job is different from any he has held before.
“One of the biggest transitions is they treat you like a professional even though you’re still learning,” said Riggins, who plans to become the first African American governor of Florida.
“They are not charity cases,” Ellenbogen said of the interns. “These kids have usually worked hard and deserved these opportunities. . . . This is about being a complete professional.”