Profile: Renette Oklewicz
We are honored to profile Renette Oklewicz, long-time Director of Programs at the Freddie Mac Foundation, for her significant contributions to the adoption and foster care communities. Renette, who has dedicated her career to the service of children and families, has been instrumental to DAI’s mission to enhance the lives of everyone touched by adoption. Through her efforts at Freddie Mac, she has helped to fund some of DAI’s greatest work, including our Adoption Support and Preservation Initiative – also known as “Keeping the Promise”. As the Freddie Mac Foundation closes its doors at the end of this year, we were thrilled to learn more about the woman behind so many meaningful advancements in the adoption and foster care field.
1. Choosing a nonprofit career instead of the corporate track still isn’t very common. What brought you into philanthropy? How long have you been working in the field?
I began my career as a child welfare social worker working with foster children. I followed that career for 10 years before I landed my job at Freddie Mac in their community relations department. It was during my first few years there that Freddie Mac decided to create a foundation with a focus on disadvantaged children. With my experience in foster care, I was asked to assist in developing the direction of the Freddie Mac Foundation and became its first program officer. I have remained at the Foundation for the past 23 years and would still be there today, if it were not closing its doors. Prior to that I worked in the child welfare field for 10 years.
2. You have helped so many children and families through your work. What inspired you to become invested in the area of adoption and foster care?
Having spent the early years of my career in the child welfare field, I have always had a deep-seated desire to help abused and neglected children. With the Foundation’s focus on permanency for foster children, I was uniquely positioned to continue my work on their behalf. This experience has been made particularly rewarding because I have had the opportunity to work with incredibly smart and committed professionals in the nonprofit sector.
3. What were some of the challenging issues you discovered through your work?
What I found challenging was working with public child welfare agencies. Unlike the private nonprofit sector, they rarely sought foundation funding to assist them in their efforts to help children in foster care. It almost seemed as if a request for external funding meant failure on their part to carry out their mandated responsibility. If an outside funder had to help them do their work, then that would mean that their state or county was not meeting the needs of the children.
4. If you had a magic wand, what is one thing you could change about adoption and foster care?
It is very difficult to choose just one thing. I have found that the life trajectory of a child in foster care is far too often determined by the skills, attitude and creativity of their social worker and/or the culture and resources of the agency. The outcomes for a child in care should never be so random or unpredictable. I would insist that every agency head and child welfare worker be held accountable through their job performance for each and every child’s well-being in their care, including those who exit the system as well. Each employee would have job measures tied directly to the outcomes of the youth in their care, i.e. school performance, health and mental health care, preparation for independence, etc., and they would receive promotions and salary increases accordingly, which is what the private sector calls “pay for performance.” I would make sure performance objectives were clear and attainable and that each employee had the resources, including skilled supervision, they needed to attain them. I would also pay them a salary commensurate with the responsibilities of their jobs, which means, in most localities, they would be paid far more than they are right now.
5. Good or bad, has there been something that has really surprised you in the work you encountered?
One thing that I have found surprising and disappointing is the reluctance of foundations to support advocacy efforts. Funders are much more inclined to support direct services that may impact a targeted slice of the population than to fund public awareness and education projects that have the potential to impact thousands, if not millions, of people across the country. Educating policy makers and practitioners about best practices is something that I have always believed goes hand-in-hand with funding direct services. A single policy at the state or national level has the potential to improve the outcomes of thousands of people in need. Consider the plight of children in foster care who are totally dependent upon the government to meet their needs. If the government’s policies and practices are not as effective as they need to be then the outcomes for those children will suffer. The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s efforts to promote much needed post adoption support are a good example of why funding education and advocacy are critical to improving life outcomes for adoptive children and their families. This becomes even more essential when the condition of the very population needing help is cloaked in the government’s confidentiality policies.
6. Considering your time at the Freddie Mac Foundation, is there an accomplishment you are most proud of?
If I had to pick one that stands out from all of the rest, it would be National Adoption Day (NAD) because of where it started and how far it has come. In 2000, our Foundation was one of the original funders of National Adoption Day, which is based on Adoption Saturday in Los Angeles, the brainchild of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, a local nonprofit. Adoption Saturday was created to facilitate adoption finalizations that had become backlogged in the county. The idea was to bring all of the family court judges into the courtroom one Saturday a month to process the finalizations. The day became a celebration of adoptions with balloons, clowns, food and other festivities. The day drew significant media attention raising awareness about the thousands of foster children in need of adoption. The Alliance for Children’s Rights decided to promote the idea across the country by establishing one day in November (National Adoption Month) and encouraging other communities to follow the model that had been created in Los Angeles. Their plan was funded by our Foundation and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. When I took over management of the grant in 2001, we were the only funder remaining and the celebrations had only grown to 18 in a handful of states. I saw the incredible potential that NAD had to raise awareness but knew that it could never become recognized as a national day of celebration and spread across the country unless other adoption advocates and funders came to the table. By inviting other partners, we were able to garner more attention, resources and talents to grow the idea on a larger scale. We set out the goal of having at least one celebration in each state and created and implemented a plan to get there. Within a few years our goal was reached. In 2013 there were over 400 NAD celebrations in all 50 states and, since the launch of the event, more than 55,000 adoptions have been finalized on this special day. Most importantly, over the past 14 years, NAD has attracted millions of dollars in free print and broadcast media coverage, all focused on the blessings of adoption and the need for more families to open their hearts and homes to foster children waiting for their forever family.
7. What is the most important lesson you learned doing the work you have done with Freddie Mac?
One lesson that I learned early on is that a collaborative effort, regardless of how difficult those are to build and sustain, is far more effective than a singular person or organization attempting to find a resolution to a human need or cause. By bringing together a group of brilliant and creative minds to address a problem, the result will be a far more effective and sustainable solution. The collaboration needs to engage a variety of voices, including people from the business, faith, public and philanthropic sectors.
8. You’ve been invaluable to helping organizations, like DAI, better the lives of everyone in the adoption and foster care community. If you could positively change the public’s attitudes toward adoption and foster care by telling them one thing, what would it be?
I think the general opinion is that children in foster care are receiving the resources, help and support they need because the government is fully responsible for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The system and the children it serves need the talents, creativity and resources of the community, funders and corporations because the system does not have sufficient resources and often the know-how to give these children and youth what they desperately need. The private sector provides these kinds of resources to nonprofits but rarely to government agencies. Child welfare agencies are reluctant to seek outside resources or help, but, if they did, the outcomes for the children in their care would be far more positive. The one thing I would tell the public is that they need to find a way, as difficult as it may be, to get involved because they can make a huge difference in the life of a foster child. Becoming a CASA volunteer or a foster or adoptive parent are all excellent opportunities to do just that.
9. Freddie Mac has been instrumental helping our organization fulfill its mission and we are so grateful. Sadly, it will be closing its doors at the end of this year. What’s next for you?
I am taking some time off and then will explore the possibility of consulting. I am looking to pursue a few volunteer opportunities as well. I have found working in the nonprofit sector to be both rewarding and inspiring which is why I want to continue to contribute my skills and experience to the important work they are doing.
Thanks to Renette for sharing her story! Be sure to check out a new adoption spotlight profile in our next Newsletter.