Foster Village, co-founded by coffee-shop owner and former teacher Becky Santoro, provides a much-needed community for foster parents in Charlotte.
by Michelle Boudin
Becky and Tony Santoro had always thought about someday being foster parents, but life got busy. The couple moved to Charlotte from Michigan in 2007 to take teaching jobs at Title 1 schools in CMS. They started a family, and on their 10th anniversary opened Enderly Coffee just off Freedom Drive on the edge of uptown.
“We were working four jobs to make ends meet, we had two babies, and I looked at Tony and said, ‘This hasn’t gone away, and I feel like if we keep living our lives, we’re not going to stop and do this,’” Becky Santoro says.
The couple enrolled in classes and spent 30 hours training to be foster parents. An hour after receiving their license, they got a call about a little girl who needed help.
“I ran to Target, and even though I had just done this — I had two little ones — I couldn’t remember what to buy,” Santoro remembers. “I couldn’t remember what you need for a 1-year-old. Now with Foster Village, we deliver welcome packs because I remember that feeling of ‘I don’t know what she needs.’”
Foster Village Charlotte is the nonprofit Santoro founded in 2018 with three other foster moms — Sloan Crawford, Traci Prillaman and Molly Zalewski — after they realized there was no local network to connect foster families and little guidance to help them get started. Santoro and Prillaman serve as co-directors of Foster Village Charlotte, one of seven affiliates of Austin, Texas-based Foster Village.
“Fostering can isolate you. Your friends and family, no matter how well intentioned they are, they don’t understand the ins and outs of foster care,” Santoro says. “It’s just a different life, so I Googled looking for a community and only a small Facebook page popped up.”
There are 16 different agencies licensing foster parents in Charlotte, according to Santoro, so most families don’t know each other. “They don’t talk to each other. There was no connecting of the dots. We weren’t trying to make a nonprofit — we were just trying to find community.”
They started by asking friends and family to help them fill 30 welcome packs in 30 days — bags filled with clothing, pajamas, blankets and other essentials that are given to new foster parents. “We were surprised — they just started showing up from everywhere.”
Foster Village still provides those welcome packs — they delivered 250 in 2020 — but they’ve grown to offer so much more. With three part-time staffers and 70 volunteers, the group works with hundreds of families each year offering training and mentorship for foster parents, even providing one-on-one check-in calls.
“We’re really trying to lessen burnout,” Santoro says, an important consideration given that 60% of foster families give up in the first year. “We are strong advocates for supporting the families. Our aim is to strengthen the support around the child because that supports the child. All of our programming affects the child, but through the lens of helping the caregiver.”
The Santoros are now a family of six. They ultimately adopted the little girl they fostered, and when they learned she had a brother, they fostered and later adopted him as well. (Santoro points out that 60% of foster kids in Charlotte return to their family of origin.) Santoro left her job as a teacher and now runs Foster Village full time. The nonprofit established a resource center in Oakhurst in July 2019, which serves as a hub for volunteers and a place for support groups to gather (those meetings have been held virtually during the pandemic).
Santoro says the support has been overwhelming.
“I’m building everything I [wished] I had as a foster parent — if I could have done it over, here’s what I would have needed at the time,” she says. “And it’s definitely humbling to have so many people supporting us in such a big way. I anticipate 2021 being our year of advocacy. Let’s find the parents and support them, but let’s also figure out why they’re burning out and stop it.” SP
featured image by Nathan Bingle