Well, I am delighted to be here. I want to thank Under Secretary Pat Kennedy for helping us host all of you today, and I want to also commend Louis Henderson and Darlene Young and the wonderful team that is part of Team 20 to have really spearheaded this effort.
Operation Step-it-Up is an example of the ways in which we can tap into the leadership skills of our employees and build good, strong, interagency cooperation and contribute to helping a lot of others as well. So I’m very proud that the State Department is able to host this event.
I have a longstanding interest in adoption and foster care issues dating back many, many years. My own mother actually was sort of informally fostered after her teenage parents couldn’t take care of her and her grandparents were similarly unable. And so she went to work in a home with a family taking care of their children, but the mother of that family was especially sensitive, so she made it possible for my mother to finish her work in the morning, getting the children of the house out to school, and then go to high school. So she actually was able to graduate from high school, which was an extraordinary accomplishment. And I wonder what would have happened to her if she hadn’t had that support.
In the years that I’ve been a lawyer and a child advocate and worked in organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund, I have tried to support positive changes in the foster care system and the adoption system, trying to find permanent, loving homes for children. But very often, it’s not possible to find family support or the community support that young people really deserve, especially those aging out of foster care. And this is an issue that I paid particular attention to when I was honored to be First Lady and then during the years in the Senate. I often had young people who had been in the foster care system interning in the First Lady’s office and in the Senate office, and I know that Mr. Henderson has been deeply involved in working on behalf of programs designed to assist young people when they do age out of foster care.
Little things can make such a difference, and what you’re doing today to really help young people kind of navigate the employment world is so significant. And I don’t know about you, but I certainly worried about what to wear on my first job interviews. And so the whole idea of trying to help young people make a good first impression, providing these suits that will help young adults transitioning out of the foster care system – when I started working on the aging out of foster care issues, most states had a regulation that when you graduated from high school or turned 18, whichever came first, you were no longer in the foster care system. And so social workers would literally show up at foster homes and group homes and hand these young people a black garbage bag and tell them to put their possessions in this bag and then they were on their own.
And for some of the young people that I have gotten to know over the years, it was just a shocking experience, particularly for those halfway through their senior year in high school. And they lived with friends’ parents. One young woman who I got to know just went from home to home, and from airport to airport, to bus station to bus station, just trying to find a place to spend the night so she could graduate from high school. She had already been accepted into a college, but she had to graduate from high school. And many other real hardships that these young people have had to endure.
So I’m impressed and grateful that our federal employees are participating in the Executive Leadership Program, and it didn’t stop just with an idea; you have followed through on it. And I know it’s going to make a difference. No matter what job we’re in or what level of government our position may be, I think we’re all public servants. And as public servants, I think we have a responsibility and an opportunity to give back. Operation Step-it-Up will give a lot of real-time help to young people who so desperately deserve it.
One of the young men who served as an intern in my office when I was a senator was someone who had been in and out of many foster homes. Luckily, when he was about 15, got into a situation with an adult who really made an investment, as he would tell you, no matter how difficult he was, stayed with him, got him through high school. Then he went on to college. He was an intern for me a couple of years while he was in college. And now he’s in law school, and I’ve often talked with him about what it’s been like for him. And he said, “Well, you know, you just have to imagine that it’s like you’re dropped into an island culture where you really don’t know the cues, you don’t know what it’s like to go to somebody’s home for Thanksgiving dinner because you really haven’t had that opportunity. You don’t know what it’s like to have a parent encouraging you or a grandparent who stays in your life.”
And what you’re trying to do here through this program sends a very strong signal that we may not know, those of us fortunate enough to have families that have stood with us and supported us. But I watched my own mother struggle with what it was like to become an adult pretty much on her own and then to have her own family, and to try to apply the lessons that she saw in that space of time when she was working in someone else’s home who took the time to try to foster and mentor her.
So I couldn’t be more delighted to be here to support this, and I’m very proud of particularly our State Department employees, but really all our federal employees for taking this on. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)