At the age of 12, Stephanie Symonds, Founder of Fostering ConNEXTions, had a vision of the type of non-profit she would one day want to create. Born and raised in Bermuda, Symonds spent fourteen years in the foster care system where she experienced abuse and dealt with many personal issues. Her own journey and a vision to make things better for foster kids, troubled teens, and families going through generational trauma (cycles) is what ultimately led to the founding of Fostering ConNEXTions at the beginning of 2020 and a book she co-authored with Lesley George and eight other women called International Day of the Girl: A Walk In Our Life.
“My experience helped to build the vision,” she said. “The vision for Fostering ConNEXTions is to work with community partners and other local non-profits to help close the gaps in the system. We like to think of ourselves as a ‘wrap around’ social work program. We will work with families and kids to provide them with the education, resources, and connections they need to succeed.”
Symonds currently works full-time at the Hibiscus Children’s Center while she builds out her non-profit. At Hibiscus, Symonds works with Supporting Families in Crisis (SFC). If parents are having trouble paying their bills, rent and/or utilities, which, according to Symonds can sometimes lead to stress, verbal and physical aggression towards their children, then SFC will step in and help to prevent/avoid a DCF case from occurring.
“We also assist with connecting the families with the community by giving referrals and recommendations based upon the needs of the family – such as after-school care, mental health services, goal planning, budgeting education, career planning, and so much more.”
Working at Hibiscus Children’s Center for the past three years has humbled Symonds and has given her room to grow in her personal and professional development.
"I am grateful for the opportunities Hibiscus provides to teach me and promote me for growth. They believe in me and see my potential and they push me beyond my limits in so many ways.”
According to Symonds, Fostering ConNEXTions vision is to create a paradigm shift to change the way youth think and to allow them, at a young age, to see that they have the ability to do whatever they want in life. The programs they are currently working to include but are not limited to: mentorship, referral resources, self-esteem/confidence building workshops, youth programs, leadership skills, as well as workshops, support groups, publications and partnerships.
Symonds explained, “Our slogan is ‘Cultivating the NEXT Generation’. We want to create a new generation of leaders. We want them to be able to envision more for themselves. They don’t have to be a number – a statistic. They are valued and worth investing in. We would like to plant the seed and watch it flourish and emerge into something beautiful. They are somebody and can become whoever they want; whether it be a teacher, business person, lawyer, entrepreneur or CEO of a company. We want to help them visualize it for themselves; allow them to hone onto the gifts that life has to offer them. Yes they may have distractions along the way, but they can get up and pick themselves up and keep going for the goals. That’s the meaning of a successful achiever. We are in the business of building up and empowering. We focus heavily on building self-confidence and creating a vision.”
Despite working through some initial challenges when she launched Fostering ConNEXTions, including fundraising and trying to get more non-profits to work together, Symonds is dedicated to restoring emotional and mental health many teens and families deal with after experiencing abuse. She’s committed to the cause and she’s getting her message out through several different channels.
“We’ve been on the radio,” she said. “We had a newspaper article written about us. We have a presence on social media, we distribute flyers and we also produced a resource publication that goes to libraries, doctor offices and the public schools. We want to reach the entire community and help them in the areas they need help. We also work with special needs families as well. We run a support group called ‘Special Needs Family Connections. We meet every third Saturday at Pop’s Gym at the Orange Blossom Mall.”
Sharon Laskey and Symonds started this group four years ago due to their own challenges as mothers with special needs kids. They saw the need for a support group in St Lucie County and so they wet their feet and dove right in. The support group was their foundation and helped Symonds to make her vision a reality. Fostering ConNEXTions is here to support and grow with the community.
Symonds, who loves more than anything the ability to work with families in crisis, would eventually like to leave her day job to focus exclusively on Fostering ConNEXTions. She’d also like to start a similar non-profit in Bermuda. Above all, Symonds hopes her efforts will encourage more non-profits to work together.
“The Department of Children and Families is not a stand-alone agency,” she said. “They need people, the community and non-profits to surround them and help support their efforts. They need additional workshops, coaching and support groups. We all need to come together and work together on this very important cause. The power of ‘We’ is very strong.”
What advice does Symonds have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “In order for others to believe in your vision you have to learn to believe and trust in yourself and in your vision,” she said. “Also, the first step is always the hardest. We could be our own worst critics; we can just play around with the concept or we can take action and just do it. It took me years to take the first step. Find someone that can help you – a friend, a mentor or even a school professor/teacher. That’s what I did. I spoke with my friend about my vision with Fostering ConNEXTions and she supported me, holds me accountable, gives me friendly reminders, and so much more. I also reached out to one of my school professors after a year of graduating from IRSC and spoke with him about my plans and he said, ‘What are you waiting for; this could have been started yesterday’. If you don’t start moving forward on your vision today, there are people missing out on what you have for them. You could be saving someone or helping to break a bad cycle.”
Symonds continued, “Fostering ConNEXTions, Inc, would not have been able to flourish without the help and encouragement without our team and our board. So choosing people who you trust and those that will support your vision is really important to creating any type of success in your life. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all’. I am a firm believer and I Trust in God in ALL things – he’ll provide everything you need.”