Truckee’s Reid Cox wins $50,000 AARP Purpose Prize for he and his wife’s company iFoster | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Truckee’s Reid Cox wins $50,000 AARP Purpose Prize for he and his wife’s company iFoster

Justin Scacco
jscacco@sierrasun.com

AARP Purpose Prize 2017 is held at The Field Museum in Chicago, Il. where Celeste Mergens is among those recognized for her work. Photo by Sol Neelman for AARP.)

Each year the AARP names five winners, age 50 and over, for the association's $50,000 Purpose Prize recognizing outstanding work in projects that give back to the community.

This year, Truckee's Reid Cox was recognized for his work in creating an online community for foster care called iFoster.

The website and app Cox and his wife Serita Cox created provides foster families and social workers with a wealth of resources, such as discounts on medical care, computers and school equipment, and also by helping with employment and college preparation.

"At any moment in time there are a little over 400,000 kids in the U.S. that are living in formal foster care — living with a trained stranger. There's a much bigger number that live with relatives … or they might live with a community member … that's called kinship care — somebody the child knows. That number is somewhere around 8 million kids in the U.S.," said Cox.

"What we wanted to do was bring that entire population together online for the first time. That's really what iFoster is, it's an online community for caregivers, children as they become 16 years old and are starting to think about taking care of themselves, social workers, and other nonprofits. What we do on their behalf is we ask them what they need."

Those requests range from purchasing items to school to visits to the dentist, and it's through iFoster that Cox and his wife have been able to reach out to businesses in order to secure discounted or free services for foster children.

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Cox and his wife, who spent time in foster care herself while growing up, began the nonprofit company in 2010 with the idea of connecting the foster care community,

The two were both working full time at the time, with Reid working in the corporate finance world with his client LinkedIn Corporation; while Serita worked for nonprofit, The Bridgespan Group.

"I got to go in-house and learn how you build an online community, how you grow it, how you take care of it," said Cox on working with LinkedIn. "Serita was learning a lot about the nonprofit world, so at that point in time we realized that we could create sort of the equivalent of a LinkedIn or a Facebook or an Amazon, specifically for foster care."

The two began working on their downtime to create a beta version of the site, and then just before going on vacation in 2010, Cox sent out emails to the heads of child welfare in 10 different states in order to get feedback on the site.

Instead of feedback, he said iFoster received 300 registrations by the following morning, because the state of New York forwarded the email, which included a link to the site, to its child care agencies, "who sent it out to all of their foster care clients, who started signing up. Basically, we didn't even have a soft launch, we had a launch that surprised us, and it's just taken off. We get 600 new members every month. It exploded right out of the gate and ever since then we've added more corporate partners with more resources."

From there iFoster sprouted. Reid was given a website engine from a friend of a friend, who runs a site for Microsoft developers, allowing iFoster to upgrade from its beta version.

"He just took our look and feel and put it on top of his engine," said Cox. "He basically donated $2 million worth of his infrastructure and we just sit on top of it.

The nonprofit then began reaching out stores, businesses, and other organizations about getting discounted or donated services and items.

As iFoster began asking its own community what they needed, the first thing that popped up was a lack of computers for foster children.

"They fall behind their classmates, they start dropping out of high school, maybe they don't go to college," said Cox, "So we formed a partnership with Microsoft to donate Windows and Office, and we formed a partnership with a company that gets refurbished laptops, so we are able to give and sell computers at really low costs to our community."

iFoster has 42,000 members in its community, according to Cox, and aside from helping those currently in foster care, the company has branched out to help those who have aged out of the program. More than 20,000 young people aged out of foster care in 2015, according to ChildrensRights.org.

"They're going to be on their own, 70 percent will be on some form of social benefit as soon as they leave foster care, 50 percent will experience homelessness, 50 percent will be unemployed, about 45 percent will drop out of high school, and only three percent will ever get a college degree," said Cox.

"These kids, this poor population that we as a society removed from their homes and are supposed to be taking care of, we let them just leave at the age of 18 to be homeless, unemployed, end up in prison, terrible things happen to this group."

Through the program, foster children receive training, and tools necessary to succeed in the workplace, whether that be obtaining a cell phone or help with transportation to work.

"We started that program in Placer County and our first employer was a Raley's," said Cox. "That was a little over two years ago, and in two years, we have trained and employed 350 youth, that otherwise would have been part of that 70 percent on social benefits and 50 percent unemployed. Those 350 youth now have jobs with 25 different employer partners. Our kids are the best employees many of these employers can get. Instead of a 30 percent retention, they are getting a 90 percent retention rate with our kids … the program has been identified by the federal government as a promising practice for youth employment."

The company's latest area of focus has been working on an education program, which will give foster children everything they need to be successful at college — from stable housing and reliable transportation to help with child care, if need be.

"It's tragic in that particular case, to see a kid get through the childcare system, and be an academic all-star, and then go off to college and now they've got all these extra hurdles."

Recently, iFoster and Cox were recognized for the work done in the foster community with the $50,000 award from the AARP. Cox then flew to Chicago for the awards ceremony on Nov. 2, which featured guests, Soledad O'Brien and David Axelrod.

At first, iFoster and the AARP might seem an unlikely pairing, but according to information from the AARP's Grandfamilies site, there are 5,654,315 children that live with their grandparents. There are also 2,685,185 grandparents that are householders responsible for grandchildren who live with them, and of those, 891,082 do not have the parents present, while 37 percent of the grandparents are over the age of 60.

"The number is much bigger when you have a mom and dad in the picture that may be living with the grandparents, or the grandparents are subsidizing them. That's like 8 million people," said Cox. "There's a big overlap between the AARP's population and our population, which serves children that are being raised outside of their biological environments."

Cox said iFoster has no plans as of yet for the $50,000, and since the award is unrestricted he said the company will take some time to figure out how best to allocate the funds. He also said he's excited for future collaboration with AARP and working with that segment of the foster care population as iFoster looks to grow its community, gather more support, and work to dispell some of the negatavie stereotypes surrounding foster children.

"All of these kids have the potential to be unbelievable employees, unbelievable students, unbelievable entrepreneurs, unbelievably creative artists, if that's what they want to do," said Cox. "We just don't give them the opportunity to do it."

For more information visit iFoster.org.