Growing up wasn’t easy for Whitney Gilliard. Her mother abandoned her, her father died, and her life was a series of moving from home to home.
And then a random placement with a foster family at age 16 changed her life.
“It was all so new to me — putting education first, watching a loving couple lead a family, becoming confident in public,” says Whitney, who was in foster care from age 14 to age 21. “People came into my life, and changed the direction of my future. That’s what I want to do, too.”
Today, that’s exactly what Whitney’s doing through Gilliard & Company, a non-profit she founded with her husband Maurice to help children in the foster care system thrive. A key part of their work focuses on helping young adults transition out of foster care to live safe, productive lives on their own.
Based in the couple’s adopted home of Savannah, where Maurice built his military career, the organization partners with the local Department of Family Services and area nonprofits to provide services ranging from rent assistance and scholarship guidance to hygiene products and suitcases.
Gilliard & Company’s Independent Living Program sets up for success young adults who age out of foster care by age 21. The 13-month program provides an apartment to live in, plus helps in developing life skills such as cooking, financial literacy, and filling out scholarship and job applications.
“When I was that age, I needed a roof over my head and food in my belly,” said Whitney, adding that the goal is to reduce the possibility of foster children becoming homeless young adults. “Those were the essentials that made me know that I was going to be safe, and life was going to be OK.”
Another program, HavINN™, was developed with DFCS. Designed as a comfort room, it's a safe place in the foster care system to meet with families or talk to a social worker. Teens also leave the room with necessities like personal hygiene items and clothing items thanks to support from companies like Comfort Cases, which allows each teen to have a backpack or suitcase of their own.
“So much of my life is impacted by foster care, but I am a product of people who stepped in and loved me,” says Whitney. “We want to see the day when all the needs of those in foster care are met. Who knows what that will look like? But that’s what we’re going to do.”
About Circle & Shield
Cingo means to surround and secure — to protect. That’s what we do. And we have a lot of respect for those who take it upon themselves to make protection a part of what they do, too. That’s why we’ve launched Circle & Shield, our award to a member of the community who helps make the world a better place, a safer place.