Working Wonders for Foster Youth

Winner of 2018 Innovations in American Government Award builds bridges to careers and opportunity

Written by Sarah Grucza, Communications Specialist

In the United States, nearly 23,000 young people age out of the foster care system every year without having been reunited with their families or placed in permanent homes. Approximately 20 percent of those who leave foster care without a permanent home after turning 18 join the growing ranks of the homeless in cities and towns large and small across the country, according to the National Foster Youth Initiative. Only half will find gainful employment by the time they turn 24.

Lisa Guillette, the executive director of Foster Forward, a Rhode Island nonprofit dedicated to foster youth and families, spoke about the millions of young people in the United States who lack connections to either school or work, and painted an even more challenging picture for America’s foster care population: “With our nation's 400,000 foster youth, most [are] in danger of falling behind."

Guillette was at the Rhode Island State House in Providence this winter, along with Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, to accept the Ash Center’s 2018 Innovations in American Government Award on behalf of the Works Wonders program, one of the country’s most successful efforts at filling the education, peer support, and job training gap for those who have aged out of—or are about to age out of—foster care. The Innovations in American Government Award is the nation’s preeminent recognition for excellence and creativity in the public sector.

IAG Award Ceremony
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (right) and Director Scott Jensen, Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (left), join Lisa Guillette in accepting the Innovations Award from the Ash Center’s Stephen Goldsmith

Launched in 2012, Works Wonders is a partnership between Foster Forward and key state agencies to provide a holistic support system for foster youth that addresses both hard and soft skills. Participants have access to education, peer support, counseling, experiential learning opportunities, and, ultimately, paid jobs, vocational programs, and continued educational opportunities.

“Works Wonders is an outstanding program that helps foster kids in Rhode Island reach their full potential,” said Governor Raimondo at the Award ceremony. “Rhode Island is meeting a crucial need for a population that is too often underserved.”

Works Wonders’ focus on foster youth sets it apart from other career development programs, as it fills a gap between traditional workforce development programs, which are aimed at adults, and typical youth-centric programs, which assume a level of parental engagement.

The program is further differentiated by the unique public-private partnership it embodies. “We knew that the biggest predictor of future employment is past experience,” observed Guillette. Works Wonders partners with the Governor’s Workforce Board to give participants access to opportunities with local employers. Participating employers are not only rewarded with a fresh pipeline of talent, but state job development funds provide additional incentives to hire and retain program participants.  

Works Wonders has achieved significant success in connecting foster youth to jobs and opportunities for education. A recent study showed that 83 percent of participants complete the program and participants are 37 percent more likely to be employed as compared to those who do not participate.


"I want to thank Works Wonders for working with me to find a job. I'm living my best life"


“We credit the fact that foster youth were involved in every aspect of our program design and delivery,” says Guillette, speaking about the program’s achievements. “They helped us identify those key barriers that might otherwise be impediments to their successful participation.”

“The Works Wonders program has been wonderful for me,” remarked Tobias Bear, a program participant, at the Award ceremony. Works Wonders connected Bear to Harvest Kitchen, a culinary job-training program for youth in Rhode Island. “I cook a lot of my own meals now,” he added, and reflected that Works Wonders had ‟helped me [become] the person I am today.”

Tobias Bear
Tobias Bear was nervous before presenting at the awards ceremony, but his delivery of the event introduction was flawless

Echoing Bear’s sentiments, Amelia Manuso, also a Works Wonders participant, expressed her appreciation for the program saying, “I want to thank Works Wonders for working with me to find a job. I'm living my best life. It means a lot.” 

“This particular program, which has done so much good to help young adults get jobs and move on as productive citizens of the state of Rhode Island, is the most extraordinary program we have seen in a long time,” said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Ash Center. “We hope that this recognition will help the program scale and its award-winning attributes be adopted by other jurisdictions.”

The Innovations in American Government Award comes with a $50,000 grant to help Works Wonders disseminate their winning innovation, developing tools and resources to allow other jurisdictions interested in adopting similar programming to replicate their model.