It was the decision to attend a New Year’s Eve party in San Francisco 13 years ago that led Isis Dallis Keigwin, CEO and co-founder of the Camellia Network, to provide life-lines for teens aging out of foster care. Isis and the party’s host, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, were young professionals just starting out – Isis working in marketing for Old Navy and Vanessa at a local nonprofit. The two met that evening and remained close.
In 2010, Vanessa reached out to her old friend as she was about to embark on a book tour for her debut novel, The Language of Flowers. “She knew it was going to garner a lot of attention,” says Isis, “And she wanted to translate the attention into something tangible.”
By that time, Isis was an executive at a public relations firm, and Vanessa knew Isis’s marketing and branding expertise would be valuable in helping harness the awareness and momentum the tour would create. The novel, which became a New York Times bestseller, is about a young woman recently emancipated from the foster care system. Vanessa, a foster parent herself, wanted her book to benefit the 30,000 young people who “age out” of the foster care system every year – meaning, they become legal adults and are forced to leave the system regardless of whether or not they have a plan for their future or a support system in place.
What these youth face in the outside world is startling – within two years, 25 percent of them become homeless, and 25 percent become incarcerated. 60 percent of young women have children of their own within four years. Less than 3 percent ever receive a college degree.
Combining Isis’s strategic planning and creative problem solving skills with Vanessa’s knowledge of the foster care system, together they came up with an innovative platform – the first of its kind in the social welfare sector – to crowdsource the emotional and financial support many of us receive when entering adulthood, with the goal of helping change the fate of these vulnerable young people.
Today, under Isis’s leadership, the Camellia Network is a vibrant, caring online community that has provided a forum for nearly 300 youth to share their stories and connect with virtual mentors and sponsors. Volunteers can sign up to participate as Supporters, offering youth encouragement and advice, and purchasing the every-day items they need off their registries. There also are opportunities for companies and organizations to serve as partners, providing job training and internship programs, and connecting youth to resources where they live.
In the Victorian-era language of flowers, the camellia flower means, “my destiny is in your hands.” For a young man or woman aging out of foster care with no family to fall back on, his or her destiny can be altered by receiving something as simple as a virtual pat on the back or a set of silverware for a first apartment. “We have to stop thinking of them as ‘those kids,’” says Isis, “and start thinking of them collectively as ‘our kids.’”
The 10 questions
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
To become more fully who I’m meant to be. That’s the point of life, to continue to evolve, and be open and present to messy/hard/beautiful moments that are all part of the journey. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re all doing.
HOW HAS YOUR WORK CHANGED YOU?
My work has made me realize that things can be both hard and possible – this is the hardest work I’ve ever done, but even on the hardest days, I know it’s possible, and that helps get me through. I’ve also learned that, more than anything, everyone needs to ask for help, either personally or professionally. This job made me realize, you can do everything in your own power, and hard work might not be enough. You might need to ask for help.
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
Connection. We’re all human beings together here on the planet. If you keep your head down, it can be very isolating. The moment you realize that connection is the ultimate gift you can give, life becomes more fulfilling.
WHAT IS ONE BELIEF THAT IS CORE TO YOUR BEING?
Experiences don’t define who you are. Our youth at Camellia Network have had many negative experiences, but we believe they don’t have to be defined by them. Our pasts are not predictive of future potential. Everything in life is leading us to the place we're meant to be/go.
DESCRIBE A MOMENT IN YOUR LIFE THAT HELPED YOU GAIN CLARITY ABOUT YOUR PURPOSE.
Four or five years ago, I read two books that really resonated with me – one was Eat, Pray, Love. I thought it would be a cheesy beach read, but now it’s dog-eared and underlined on nearly every page. It really spoke to me spiritually. The other is A New Earth by Eckert Tolle. It is life changing; it defines “ego” as attachment to ideas, material things and habits. As a leader, I try to be conscious about letting go of my ego and encouraging everyone to contribute.
WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
My grandmother – She’s the most influential person in my life; she’s never been wrong. She sits on her porch and gives these soulful, thoughtful nuggets of advice. She’s lived through everything and seen so much. She grew up in the Deep South and witnessed a lynching at three years old and yet has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met.
WHAT RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU BETTER ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS?
Money. Money was not the primary barrier when executing solutions for clients at the PR firm. Now, I’m dealing with much more difficult challenges – ones that involve peoples’ lives – and there are fewer resources. We have what we believe are solutions that can completely revolutionize the way these youth are seen and supported, we just lack the capacity to fully execute and scale those ideas.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE INSPIRATIONAL SAYING?
“Everything you need is already inside.” It often appears on packaging for children’s toys, and it’s true. All the tools you need, you have inside of you. You think, “How am I going to get through this difficult time?,” and you’re frustrated. But once you realize the answers lie within, things shift. It’s inspiring. The youth we work with haven’t been prepared for what they’re facing in adulthood. They feel unworthy, not capable. I tell them, “Everything you are going to encounter, you are capable of overcoming. We believe in you, and we are also here for you.”
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY BE?
Slow Pony Home. It’s a song by Deb Talan of The Weepies. It’s about a woman having conversation with her former self, describing the long process of finding herself. It sums up my life.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CHANGE AGENTS?
Ask for help; you can’t be a martyr. And don’t get caught up in qualifications. Too many people are on a set track and don’t take a leap to do something they want because they don’t think they’re “qualified.” Your heart qualifies you. Your passion will give you what you need.