The sun is beating down on a scorching Wednesday in Pooler as I pull into a parking space along Godley Station Boulevard. The temperature is moderate, something we can all expect this time of year. But it’s the humidity that kills, right? This dampness carries an inescapable reminder: no matter what progress we make, the heat in Savannah is permanent. My shirt sticks to my skin as I walk along the sidewalk to Gilliard & Co. I step inside and I’m instantly greeted with the welcome relief of the air conditioning, a true friend during the brutal Savannah summer.
Whitney Gilliard is looking to bring this sort of relief to the foster care community. A product of congregate care and group homes, she remains tied to the system that shaped her life. She speaks solutions to a myriad of problems, working to navigate the many pitfalls that affect a vulnerable part of our population. She’s looking for the children that slip through the cracks, those that feel like they have nowhere to go. These are her best friends, and the ones whose lives she hopes to change. Her goal is to help her children and young adults avoid the challenges she had to face along the way.
“I had to recover from the foster care system,” Gilliard says. “Foster care still impacts me to this day. One of the things I want to make sure that I do differently is from the moment that young adults step into our care, they don’t have to recover.”
But that’s not always the case for children and young adults transitioning out of foster care. Gilliard says the first order of business is deinstitutionalization.
“They come out of the foster care system and it’s like they’re fresh out of prison,” Gilliard says. They don’t know how to function in the real world, they don’t know how to function in society, and we have to teach them all of these things.”
Gilliard and Co. is a state-funded resource supplementing the needs and wants for children and young adults that the Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS) doesn’t provide. Gilliard often refers to the organization’s operations as archaic and out of date. Her website features forms and financial literacy through an online portal, making resources easily accessible to children and young adults that could need them at a moment’s notice. Gilliard’s brand is all about doing things differently from how government services operate.
“Something else that we do which is different is that we keep and maintain a database on all of our children,” she says. The organization utilizes different tiers of contact to keep in touch with the young adults after they leave their care. Gilliard explains, “We keep them in our database, and we document every time we have contact with them. And we plan on showing the state this data to emphasize the importance of permanency.”
I took the opportunity to check out Gilliard’s website before I came to the office, which you can view here. The first thing you’ll notice when the page loads is the number 20,000. This number, emblazoned in red, states that approximately 20,000 young adults age out of care per year without family or support. A second number, right next to the red 20,000 states that 9,500 of those adults will become homeless within 18 months.
Gilliard and Co. features the largest site capacity that can be approved by DFACS, serving up to 16 young adults. Sites in Savannah are typically approved for 6. Gilliard and Co. are currently working with 10 young adults. I’m a person with absolutely no experience with social work or foster cases. To me, this sounds like a lot, and I mention this to Gilliard. She laughs, but it’s easy to detect the undertone of exasperation.
“The state says that you must have a caseload of 13 to 1,” she says. “And even with the background I have, the 10 I’m serving can be overwhelming.”
Gilliard takes the opportunity here to highlight the true flaw in the foster care system: overwhelming case management.
“There are case managers that have 60. Or 100. Or 150. One time, I met a case manager that had over 200 cases they were handling,” she says.
Take a moment to let that number sink in. Imagine being responsible for the welfare of over 200 people, let alone 200 impressionable children and young adults.
“It’s miserable,” she admits. But when faced with a problem, Whitney Gilliard finds a solution.
“We created an intern program,” she explains. “When you intern with us, our hope is that they would be able to assist with overlooking case loads. This is our way of making sure that we are producing amazing social workers.”
The workload is tiring, and Gilliard’s oft-repeated word throughout our meeting is “overwhelming”. But she clarifies what she means when she says this.
“The truth is that everyone thinks that working in child welfare it’s the kids that take up most of your efforts,” she says. “That they’re difficult to deal with, that they take up most of your time. But in reality, they don’t burn as much of my energy as much as the state does with following the logistics they require of you. That’s what burns me out.”
Gilliard has huge aspirations for her company. She hopes to become a national brand that sets the standard for foster care advocacy and after care programs. Her five-year goal is to expand into adding a child placement agency component to her program, as well as growing their housing model. Her personal goal?
“To continue building more child care institutes that will best assist the diverse needs of the families among us,” she says.
Gilliard’s passion for her mission is unquestionable. She is the proverbial village that cares for the child. But she wasn’t always the strong, capable person she is today, and she readily admits that the path forward wasn’t always clear.
“I’ve struggled with being very suicidal as a kid. The pain and the amount of abuse that I went through was excruciating to process and accept. It was very hard. It would make me feel like I wanted to crawl up in my own skin,” she says. “I only lived in three foster homes my entire life. The rest were group homes—I lived in hospitals, I lived in juvie, I’ve lived in over 18 places in my life.”
It’s here that she references a quote from Alan Turing, a man whose wartime contributions went vastly unrecognized due to the fact that he was a gay man.
“I wish I would have told myself this when I was a kid,” she says. “Turing says ‘It is the very people that no one imagines anything of that do the very things that no one can imagine’.”
She pauses for a second. “I wish I could’ve told myself that more often as a kid. I wish I would’ve told myself that.”
There’s a silence in the room as we both reflect on this statement. For a person that lost everything while finding her way forward, it is clear from her accomplishments that Gilliard never lost her hope.
“I feel like there is never peace in my life because of the echoing chaos that is always happening,” she says. “But there is no timeline on recovery.”
We wrap up and I step back out into the hot sun. The heat rises off the asphalt as cars whiz along Godley Station Boulevard, drivers intent on reaching their destination in hopes of finding relief from the oppressive humidity. For Gilliard, there is no relief from the reminders of what she’s battled, but there’s a sense of purpose that has replaced the onslaught of hopelessness she’s faced over the years. Now, she’s the one providing comfort to an underserved population. She’s not forgotten anymore, and she’s building herself whole again through each life that she changes.
Find out more about Whitney’s mission and how you can help foster children in our area here.