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“I have a basic question that I ask related to policy making and leadership, and that basic question is, is it good for the children? Is it good for the children? If it’s not good for the children, we ought not be doing it.”
Barbara Sabol has been asking this question her entire life. From her early career as a registered nurse, through her service as Kansas’s first Director of Services for Children and Youth, Kansas’s Secretary of Health and Environment, executive deputy commissioner in New York City’s Department of Social Services, Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration in New York City, program director for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and other local, state, federal, and private posts serving children, older adults, and others, she has been a thoughtful, determined policymaker and advocate, always dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable. She was an inaugural member of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s Black Community Crusade for Children. Now, more than a decade after she “officially” retired, she is spearheading a project converting family land where her father was raised by his grandmother in Leavenworth County, Kansas into a model community with affordable rental housing for young adults aging out of foster care. In her words again: “So we owned some property, my sister and I, and we said, ‘How can we best use this property to make a difference for children?’”
Barbara recently gave an interview for the Kansas Oral History Project describing her life’s work. She shared one influential story that took place before she was born: her maternal grandmother died early, leaving her young family behind, and her dying request to her husband was: “Charlie, keep these children together.” Barbara said that story was passed down through their family, “and I heard it, and it meant something. It got embedded in the DNA.” She was called very early on to that sense of obligation and doing whatever was necessary to make sure children are cared for. Now, she is part of the leadership team for Home Works USA, LLC, building 15 small houses on her family’s land along with community food gardens, public nature trails, and other resources to create a nurturing, safe environment available for young people aging out of foster care.
In addition to providing stable, affordable rental housing, the community will provide access to health and mental health services and supports for education, job training, and employment. Home Works USA describes its mission this way: “Emerging adults ‘aging out’ of foster care often struggle to find housing as they transition to adulthood. This can set their lives on a difficult path, leading to unemployment and even homelessness. Affordable housing is a primary factor in avoiding these outcomes . . . This intentional community will support emerging adults who have aged out of foster care as they prepare for adulthood. Our goal is to allow them the opportunity to imagine and realize their dreams in a setting built on the foundation ‘home works, nature helps, and services matter.’”
This is a deep need for the more than 20,000 young people who age out of foster care every year across our nation, and once again, Barbara Sabol is doing her part to make a difference. I am so grateful for the commitment of long-haul champions for children like her. Rev. Shannon Daley-Harris, another long-haul champion for children who served CDF for more than 30 years, recently shared Barbara’s example in a sermon at the Princeton University Chapel. She concluded Barbara’s story with these questions: “I wonder, what part of God’s grand building project is each of us called to? The answer will be different for each of us, but the question is for all of us. Which of the areas of injustice, of suffering, will you work on to achieve God’s vision of justice, peace, and well-being? What tools are within reach, what skills do you bring? Is it advocacy, speaking out for justice? Hands on care? Raising awareness? Organizing? Focusing attention on problems and solutions through art or music, spoken word, op-eds? None of us has to build the whole thing single-handedly, none of us alone has to finish the job, but we do need to get back to work with the belief that we can make things better, that with others and with God the impossible is not so impossible.” This is the reminder we all need as we seek to keep doing our own part to make a difference and do what is good for children.
Marian Wright Edelman is the current President of the Children’s Defense Fund.