Friday, May 15, 2015
Sixto Cancel, a senior Virginia Commonwealth University student, will be among a dozen former foster youth who will be recognized next week by the White House for making a difference in their communities.
Cancel, a senior in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is the founder of Think of Us, a newly launched nonprofit organization that aims to use data, technology and multimedia to provide tools that help young people in foster care, as well as adults who work with foster care youth.
I really believe that when you know better, you do better.
"I really believe that when you know better, you do better. And when we start looking at the outcomes of people who experience foster care, and they age out at 18, with no supports or services, by the age of 26 only 2.5 percent of us achieve a bachelor's degree. Almost half of us experience homelessness by that age," Cancel said. "There's so many negative outcomes that you have to ask yourself: What can you do to help?"
The White House will recognize Cancel and 11 other former foster youth on Tuesday, May 19, as "Champions of Change" in honor of their courage, resilience, contributions to their communities, and commitment to furthering their education.
The event, which is part of National Foster Care Month, will feature remarks by Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, and Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant to the president for urban affairs, justice and opportunity.
"It's humbling and it makes me realize how far one can go with their passion and their advocacy," Cancel said. "It's a testament to what can happen when you stick to your mission and work towards it every day."
Think of Us recently opened an office at 913 W. Grace St., and has started developing content, notably including an online training course for a grocery store chain that will train employees on how to best work with foster care youth.
"In the last couple of months we have been able to bring in over $20,000 but still need people's help to invest their donation in us," he said.
Cancel grew up in foster care in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and had to deal with poverty, abuse and the difficulty of keeping up in school without parental support.
"I entered foster care at 11 months," Cancel said. "By the age of 6, I was living with my biological mother, but by the age of 7, I was back in foster care. At the age of 9, I was adopted by a very abusive woman. And by 13, I became experienced in couch surfing because I would be locked out. So, by 15, I re-entered foster care. And, at 19, I decided to come to VCU."
Cancel got involved with volunteering when he was a teenager, serving on the youth advisory board of the local Department of Children and Families.
"That's where I started to look at problem-solving," he said. "There are these things that happen within the system, how can we begin to be productive and help bring light and possible solutions to this?"
Through the youth board, Cancel created a program called Stellar Works, in which several of his high school teachers volunteered to provide SAT prep and after-school education assistance to young people in the foster care system.
In 2011, he got involved with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a national nonprofit that helps young people successfully transition from foster care to adulthood. As a Young Fellow with the organization, Cancel advocated to National Governors Association and U.S. Congress in support of policies that better support asset development for young people, particularly those in the foster care system.
All young people need to develop certain assets, but for young people in foster care who age out at age 18 or 21, you need to be 10 times more prepared than someone who has a supportive family to fall back on while they're in college.
"All young people need to develop certain assets, but for young people in foster care who age out at age 18 or 21, you need to be 10 times more prepared than someone who has a supportive family to fall back on while they're in college," he said.
The following year, Cancel took part in the Clinton Global Initiative University, which linked him up with 1,000 other young people from around the world who are trying to solve problems, as well as potential funders.
"I met young people who are just doing amazing, amazing problem-solving things. From trying to solve famine issues in different communities of developing countries to develop new plastic polymers that allow people to carry more water to more places," he said. "They got us to really elevate our thinking and that's when I thought up the idea of Think of Us, which is where we're at now."
Last year, Think of Us received the most votes by the community to win the People's Choice Award in VCU's Next Big Idea Competition, an online competition where members of the VCU Community submit ideas for a companies, products and services.
Cancel has also served as a member of the National Foster Care and Alumni Policy Council and as an advisory member to the American Institutes for Research LGBTQQA Advisory Board. He currently serves as a board member of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.
In addition to next week's event at the White House, Cancel recently attended a tech meetup and an emerging leaders conference at the White House.
"We've been able to talk with United States Chief Technology Officer about what we're doing and she's been really supportive and has opened some doors for us," he said. "And I'll be going back to the White House at the end of the month for a presentation on normalcy within foster care."
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