In 2008, like most college grads, Kristen Turso-Whitlow wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to do with her life. By happenstance, the sociology major started working at a group home in South Carolina.
“I was blown away in the worst possible way,” she says.
The congregate care setting where Turso-Whitlow worked housed kids from zero-17, many of whom were forsaken, left sitting with no prospects in sight. A year into her time there, the recession hit, and the already barebones facility lost all funding and shut down.
“I felt like the system was so incredibly broken,” says Turso-Whitlow. “I cared so much about those kids and I was so angry at how their lives looked. I pledged that if I could do anything, even in the smallest way, this is what I wanted to dedicate my career to.”
While working in the foster care arena in Charlottesville, Turso-Whitlow heard about a two-year pilot program in Richmond. The Children’s Home Society of Virginia’s Possibilities Program posed the question: What would happen if you provided safe, stable and affordable housing to youths who had aged out of foster care?
Six years later, Turso-Whitlow runs the My Path Forward program, the natural evolution of the pilot program that drew her in. “I always felt my niche seemed to be with older youths,” says Turso-Whitlow. “It’s who I was drawn to the most, where I felt the most work could be done.”
Minors in foster care typically have safety nets in place to prevent them from falling through the cracks. But young people ages 18-early 20s who grew up in foster care? They’re expected to enter the harsh realities of the world with no support.
In addition to overseeing the My Path Forward program, which provides wrap-around support for youths ages 17-21 transitioning to adulthood, Turso-Whitlow also manages the Legacy Program, which assists those ages 21-25. This support could look like housing, mental health services, career coaching and more.
Turso-Whitlow says she’s most proud of how instrumental the youth voice is as they continue to mold the program. “It’s why I have been here for so long,” she says. “I think it’s so important that we listen to the clients, especially when no one has ever listened to them, where they’ve only ever been told what to do. Instead we ask, ‘What do you need?’”