Jackie Hunt has been on the front lines working with Madison’s most vulnerable families before COVID-19, and now, as the area slowly comes out of the pandemic, she has a big vision for how to strengthen those families in the future.
Hunt, a longtime leader in Madison’s Black community, is the founder and CEO of Families Overcoming Struggles To Encourage Restoration, or FOSTER of Dane County. The nonprofit provides support services for families who are at risk of being in the foster care system, have been incarcerated or that have single-parent households. It provides food, clothing, help with essential household items, and in some cases medication copays and transportation costs.
Hunt says she has served thousands of families over the course of her career and directly works with each one. She talked to the Cap Times about what’s on tap for her group.
You came from a background not unlike some of the people you now help. How did those earlier experiences influence your work?
As a young adult, I found myself a single, undereducated parent of three. None of their fathers were engaged with me and the kids’ lives. What I didn’t know was that there is such a thing as postpartum depression. I experienced it, as well as substance abuse disorders, and I spiraled out of control after I lost my mom in 1993. My addiction landed me in prison with my children removed from my care.
I made a decision that I didn’t want my (prison) time to be done in vain and I sought the resources they had available and I worked really hard and I was released from prison. In prison I gave birth to my fourth child and he was immediately placed in foster care. I had a very negative perception of what foster care was at the time and so my goal was focused on getting through prison and getting my son back and then reuniting my family and having some sort of normal life.
That happened, thank God. I was able to get my children back and I went back to school, got my degree and worked at Journey Mental Health Center for 18 years. Then I left Journey in 2016 and started my own private practice and subsequently the nonprofit. The work the nonprofit is doing is what I started at Journey. I started it as a ministry of my church, Fountain of Life Covenant Church. I found I was able to fill in the gaps that I was seeing from other service providers.
Can you tell me more about what some of those gaps were?
I learned that at critical times (during the year) there was increased substance use, depression, anxiety for clients and for their families and so I founded three events that FOSTER hosts each year in an effort to reduce those stressors that parents experience during those times. I’ve been doing each of those events for 13 years, the Pre-Mother’s Day Brunch, Back 2 Skool Bash and Dinner with Soul Santa.
FOSTER’s mission is a culmination of everything that I believe about Black families and what I’ve come to learn through my own life and how to help families. Marginalized families, not just including Black families, we want the same things for our families that others want for theirs. We want safe, happy, thriving families. We want to be able to provide for families and also be able to engage in our communities in a meaningful way. Most of the time, you know, you see some marginalized families barely surviving. They don’t have a point of reference for what it means to thrive.
I help them identify that, so they know what it feels like and they realize they, too, can thrive.
It’s really important for me because a lot of people counted me out as a former crack addict. Society had all of these stereotypes about what I was going to be and what my children were going to be and society had it wrong.
We have shown society that they were wrong. My goal is to help other families break out of that stereotype that society has as well. One family at a time.
How has the pandemic affected the people with whom you work?
The pandemic has only exposed the world to some really harsh racial disparities and now that they’ve been exposed we’re going to see more and more exposure (of them). For those families I work with who are truly marginalized, they don’t have the best resources available to their households, they’re going to struggle a lot because they’ve been struggling through the pandemic. Their families are going to be at a greater risk when the moratorium is over and all these other things are no longer in place so I don’t know how I’m going to be able to respond, but I am going to respond in some way.
Looking ahead, what are your programming priorities?
Credit repair, finding pathways to home ownership and the House of Mary Experience, which will be a home for young moms and their families. This will help individuals who haven’t had the best parenting and or life skills modeled for them. This will be for young moms with children so that they have bonding and attachment time with their children and can also focus on their overall wellness and mental health. They can map out a career path for themselves and they can get all kinds of support: money management, time management, all of those things that are crucial to becoming independent.
Then they also will be on a path to work on their credit report to make sure they have a good score and put them on a pathway to home ownership. My kids survived despite me. I didn’t have parenting skills at 18, 19, 20. I really didn’t have a clue as to what parenting was.
The House of Mary Experience gives these young moms an opportunity to be involved in their kids’ lives from infancy up, helping them understand the developmental stages, helping them engage appropriately in those stages and helping them identify where things were shortened for them, where they were forced into roles before they were ready, developmentally, for those roles.
I’m hoping to make this a national model because what we’re doing is we’re incarcerating men, incarcerating women and placing more and more burdens on them. We need to preserve families and that is what the House of Mary is intending to do.
It’s been reported that getting mental health help has been stigmatized in the Black community for some time. Are you seeing it improve since you’ve been working in this space?
Yes ma’am, it definitely has. People are more free to openly admit that they are having emotional and mental stress and have seen a therapist and sought out professional help. By doing so it has decreased the stigma associated with receiving mental health services in our community.
We got to get more men to engage, especially the younger generation. The younger generation still hasn’t totally bought in yet but with social media and things like that, people are more willing to have the conversation now.
Is there anything about the work you do or people you help that is misunderstood?
I work with some of the most marginalized in our community, the less desirables. There used to be this perception that people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take care of their business but now with the pandemic exposing the world and the disparities the way that it has, people have a little more empathy.
I’ve heard it said that because I’m just one person and FOSTER is such a small, new nonprofit that we don’t reach the numbers as a bigger nonprofit. But I would say that it is the quality of what FOSTER is able to provide on a small scale that has a much longer lasting impact because we see it through to completion. Once you’re a part of the FOSTER family, you’re always a part of the family, so to speak.
How can the community support your work?
The biggest thing is fundraising. I have a healthy, robust pool of volunteers, though not saying I would turn more away. But financially, that is the biggest thing that people can do to support FOSTER right now.