Kenneth Phillips has 61,000 clients--"foster children" whose foster parents almost never get to meet them, seldom speak their languages and know of them only through letters sent faithfully from far lands.
Phillips, 44, is national executive director of the $16-million-a-year Foster Parents Plan U.S.A., the domestic arm of an international charity with headquarters in Warwick, R.I., and national offices in seven donor countries. With all its branches, the program has an international roster of 263,000 foster children, including the 61,000 supported by American sponsors.
Phillips thinks of the organization as sort of a non-governmental Peace Corps; foster parents do not put money directly into the pockets of the familiar, heartbreaking urchins who peer from those magazine ads but, rather, provide financial aid to help their Third World communities find long-range solutions to problems with which their families have grappled for generations.
"Your Love Can Change a Lifetime"--those are the words on a fund-raising brochure that explains that it is not an adoption agency, that foster children remain with their own families but that close personal relationships are encouraged through regular exchange of correspondence and, if possible, a personal visit.
The mission of Foster Parents Plan has changed since its founding almost 50 years ago to help the children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War and its subsequent emergence as an organization providing aid to the children of war-torn Europe of the late '40s.
In the '50s, the printed fund-raising appeal was almost a cliche, perhaps a legless boy zipping around with artificial legs on a shiny new bike, the recipient of Foster Parents Plan largess. Today, the beautiful faces of children still smile from the ads--FFP is not unaware of its greatest asset--but the biggest difference in before-and-after photos of a child might be something as subtle as a new roof now sheltering the family's house.
The foster children today are "representative," explained Phillips, each representing hundreds of thousands of other children who have been denied life's basics. The enrolled child is a member of a "client family" that has met a field director's criteria for eligibility, based primarily on economics, but also on a family's willingness to work to better itself.
Phillips explained how FPP works: "If the focus (in a community) is on education, and the school systems are in place, then ours would be only a child-focused scholarship. But if there are no schools, then obviously what has to be done is to build schools and provide school supplies. Or take health care. There's no way, all alone, to help a child who has intestinal parasites; we would work for improved sanitation and education of the parents about clean water."
Within a given family, the foster child might be any of the siblings between 6 and 12 years of age. Frankly, Phillips said, that could be whichever one happened to be home when the caseworker came to enroll the family. But the child chosen is more than symbolic; the child becomes the human link in this partnership between haves and have-nots.
Extreme Poverty Cases
As a rule, the $22-a-month support sent by the foster parent in America does not go directly to the child, although in extreme poverty cases some of it might. More often, that cash would be used to respond with programs to identified community needs. Special occasion cash gifts from the foster parent are limited to $25 a year.
Direct services to the child might be preventive dentistry, literacy classes, provision of school fees or a revolving loan fund. The child's family might receive job counseling, seed and fertilizers or medicine and drugs.
The list of FPP countries is an atlas of Third World nations: India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Haiti, Mali, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Kenya. . . .
Community projects have included inoculation clinics, building of latrines, midwife training, well digging, reforestation, construction of market stalls and establishment of cooperatives.
Said Phillips: "Many communities in Africa do not have cash systems. So giving them (money) really won't help them because they wouldn't have ways of spending it. Or, if they did, it would quickly get out of control and distort and disrupt the whole economic system."
Phillips' goal is to have 100,000 foster parents in the United States within two years; aggressive recruitment resulted in a jump from 42,000 to 56,000 between 1983 and 1984. He even dreams of the parent roster worldwide reaching 5 million someday. (Currently, there are 250,000 foster parents in 22 countries).
Phillips came to Foster Parents Plan in 1972 from the Save the Children Federation, where he spent 10 years. Technically, he is now in competition with his former employer for sponsor dollars, but he sees it a little differently: "I see our major competitors as being the liquor industry, fine clothes and trips."
Growth Is Welcomed