When the school of hard knocks sets its sights on the pinnacle of power

When Jetaine Hart came to Washington in 2009, she was well-accustomed to cramming the trappings of her life into a few small suitcases and moving them from place to place. By age 20, she moved to six different homes in northern California, each time uprooting the familiar for the unknown. Jetaine wasn’t what we affectionately call an “Army brat,” whose family moved periodically as service required; she was a child in foster care. Moving was not her choice; it’s what happened to her by chance.
 
But the move to Washington was different: first, because she wanted it; and second, because it was filled with promise, opportunity. Through a little-known program on Capitol Hill that gives former foster youth access to the privileged world of summer internships, Jetaine applied for a chance to start her professional life. Each year, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute selects 15 kids who spent time in foster care and places them in congressional offices. To qualify, these talented interns must attend college, a high bar that less than 3 percent of kids in foster care reach. Jetaine, with bachelor's in hand, started her climb on Capitol Hill in the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
 
She worked hard. Along with her intern class, Jetaine met with policy experts, exploring the discrepancy between well-intended child welfare law and their on-the-ground realities. Together, the interns gathered and presented their findings to members of Congress. “We were the voice of all the kids in foster care who didn’t have one,” said Jetaine. “And we were going to use it.”
 
For the 423,000 foster youth in the country, that voice was especially relevant during the healthcare debate, where it might have easily drowned. The interns identified two troubled areas for foster youth: access and coverage. They made an argument, recruited advocates and won support of members. As a result, kids in foster care will have health benefits until the age of 26, the same as their non-foster peers. By any mark, that’s winning.
 
Jetaine’s internship turned into a two-year stint in Landrieu’s office as professional staff. She’s come full-circle, ready to return to California to mentor foster youth and choose between one of four job offers. Four job offers. A tough economy. Again, winning.
 
Her last day is May 5, which coincides with the beginning of National Foster Care Awareness Month.
 
As she exits, a new class of interns follows right behind her, ready to improve life for kids in care. Also committed are the six senators (Blunt, DeMint, Gillibrand, Kerry, Landrieu and Reid), five members (Bachmann, Bass, McDermott, Adrian Smith and Joe Wilson), and two committees (Senate Finance and House Ways and Means) that will host them. Jetaine agrees. “It’s really inspiring to know it’s not just us fighting the fight. What we learn in these offices is invaluable.”

By opening their doors, lawmakers give a chance to deserving youth who might not otherwise have one. If you are a part of the Capitol Hill community, help welcome the next Jetaine to Washington.

 
Lindsay Ellenbogen is a former congressional aide and public-relations manager for the mayor of New York City. She is on the advisory board of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption and founder of the nonprofit Sara Start Fund for Foster Youth.