In 2013, Pennsylvania’s Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network (SWAN) launched #MeetTheKids, a new campaign to recruit foster and adoptive families. This unique effort features 12 Pennsylvania youth in foster care using iPods to film each other while they discuss foster care and their need for a permanent family. While the youth filmed one another, a production crew taped the interactions. From both sources of video footage, a production team created three 30-second television commercials, one radio advertisement, and new print advertisements. In addition to highlighting the need for older youth to have families, the spots directed viewers to visit www.adoptpakids.org to watch a 13-minute documentary featuring all 12 youth. This compelling behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the campaign offers viewers more information about the youth and their need for a permanent family.
Highlighting Youth Voices
This type of campaign was something new and fresh for Pennsylvania. Although SWAN has had many campaigns to recruit resource families, this is the first campaign to feature actual waiting youth. Who better to speak on behalf of waiting youth than the youth themselves? They are their own best spokespersons. By highlighting their colorful personalities and encouraging them to advocate for themselves, #MeetTheKids helps shed light on the fact that older youth need families too. Currently, there are more than 6,000 youth 12 and older in Pennsylvania foster care.
To develop the new campaign, SWAN brought together a diverse group of young people, aged 13 to 20, in two locations (one in Pittsburgh, the other in Philadelphia). During each two-day event, the young people got a quick training from the video’s director, toured the studio, and participated in a photo shoot. Then they got down to the business of filming.
The videos were not scripted. Instead, the kids were given the opportunity to interview each other about their lives and about what having a permanent family would mean to them. Sixteen-year-old Alex wants a family to “love me, hug me but not just that.” He wants people who “allow me to sprout my wings … and support my love for video games and technology.” Cheilin, who is 20, explains, “I just want to be able to come home from school and say, ‘Look mom, I got a report card.’”
The campaign was also intended to address preconceived notions about fostering and adopting older youth. Because #MeetTheKids features actual foster youth speaking for themselves, it is able to break down the often misguided and misinformed ideas some people may have about youth in out-of-home care. The campaign gives the public a better understanding about youth in care and highlights the fact that they are just kids who want a family that will love and support them.
In the film, 18-year-old Mark talks about how he’d like to be a park ranger in the Everglades one day. Others talk about playing the clarinet, loving animals, and bringing humor to their future families. Evan, 16, laments the fact that he’s only celebrated three birthdays in his life. These youth want what every other child wants: a home, someone to celebrate birthdays and holidays with, a driver’s license, to attend college, and to participate in sports. “We’re just like everybody else,” 15-year-old Nasir reminds the documentary’s audience. “We’re just kids wanting to have a home.”
Putting Together a Team
Although the youth were of course central to the campaign, many others played a part. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth and Families (OCYF) dedicated state and federal (Title IV-E and adoption incentive) monies to the media campaign. The department issued a request for bids from media companies to create a campaign featuring real youth in foster care, and selected Top Flight Media to do the work. The Top Flight team worked with the department’s communication staff and OCYF to design the final campaign.
Suzanne Cawley, wife of Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley, agreed to serve as campaign spokesperson. The Cawleys have fostered and adopted a child from Pennsylvania’s child welfare system and have been supportive of the SWAN program and Pennsylvania’s efforts to enhance services to the children and families served. As spokesperson, Ms. Cawley narrated the documentary, and her public profile helped garner additional media attention.
Since the campaign began running across Pennsylvania in July 2013, inquiries about adoption have increased and the campaign has received significant attention. Individuals who were not in a position to adopt offered to do what they could to support the featured youth, whether it was buying them gifts, serving as honorary grandparents, or simply sending well-wishes. Most importantly, 6 of the 12 featured youth have been matched with potential families since the campaign began.
In the video, Jamari, now 19, explained, “I want people there that I know if I have a problem I can go to them.… It just kind of gets lonely sometimes…. I know someday I’ll find that family.” And she did. A family inquired about her as a result of the campaign, and she has moved in with them. Jamari is enrolled in a local college and has begun driving lessons with her father. She reports that she enjoys being with the family and is learning what it means to be a part of a family.
She has also continued to spread the word about the importance of family for all children and youth. In November, Jamari was featured on NBC’s Today Show in a live segment as part of a week-long celebration of National Adoption Month. She talked about what it is like to be an older youth in foster care waiting for a family and what having a family means to her.
Given the success of the campaign, the department is planning a repeat performance. Staff are currently drafting a request for proposals to create a second campaign, featuring a new group of youth who need families.
The campaign’s message will remain clear and direct: Watch the film. #MeetTheKids. Change a life.