Sh-neila Lee was once in a foster home for less than 24 hours.
She doesn’t know why, or what happened.
“I just know I was a kid,” Lee recalled. She walked into the house with a little grocery bag of clothes, and that was it — suddenly the woman said she had to leave. The next morning, Lee was gone.
Lee, now 31, stayed in over 30 different foster homes during her 10 years in the Mecklenburg County foster care system. What helped her? Cake decorating.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
After the Observer wrote a story about Lee in 2005, Karen Sullivan, a member of the Observer’s special sections team at the time, reached out to offer Lee cake decorating lessons. Sullivan, who attended culinary school and taught the lessons at night while she worked at the paper, wasn’t sure Lee would be interested. But her story touched Sullivan, and she wanted to help in any way she could.
So Lee accepted, thinking she had nothing to lose. Sullivan would pick Lee up, lend her equipment and allow her to sit in on the lessons for free.
“I’m the first to admit it wasn’t a lot to offer,” Sullivan said. But she felt it was better than just offering money. “Taking the time to teach someone a skill gives them options. That can make a difference.”
And it did. Lee’s been decorating cakes ever since and was able to get jobs at grocery store bakeries with her skills. She’s a graduate of the Community Culinary School of Charlotte and also graduated Central Piedmont Community College in 2016 with her natural hair license.
Now, Lee’s looking to give back.
Lee started the non-profit Cakes 4 Kids this year in an effort to teach teenagers who are in foster care or experiencing homelessness how to decorate cakes. It’s a skill that can’t be taken away, she said, and the jobs pay higher than minimum wage. Cakes 4 Kids would also provide birthday cakes for younger children, something Lee said she missed when she was in foster care. Many of her birthdays were not acknowledged, she said.
“I felt like if someone came up to me and was like ‘Hey Sh-neila, happy birthday,’ … I feel if that happened, my outcomes would have been a little more positive,” she said.
In 2005, when Lee left the system, the Observer reported that Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services administrators and state officials were looking to reform foster care and even open a shelter for former foster children once they aged out of the system. Foster care enrollment in the county was on the rise, according to NC Child, a child welfare nonprofit.
That has changed. Enrollment numbers in Mecklenburg County peaked in 2007 at 1,787, but have been decreasing ever since. Only 540 children were in custody in May 2018, said Peggy Eagan, director of Mecklenburg County’s Department of Social Services.
But statewide trends are the opposite of the county. According to the Children’s Home Society, a family services nonprofit, the number of children in foster care homes in North Carolina reached a 10-year high last year, partly due to the opioid epidemic.
The overall drop in Mecklenburg County’s numbers reflects a 2008 federal law that required DSS to try to place children with relatives and invest in the families rather than immediately placing children into foster care. Another federal law, signed in February, expanded this effort by providing services for families at risk of entering the child welfare system. The law provides states with incentives if they reduced the placement of children into congregate care, such as group homes.
But despite fewer children in the county’s custody, problems persist.
DSS’s strategic business plan for fiscal years 2017-19 outlines three areas that still require attention from the department: permanency within 12 months of removal from home, adoptions achieved within 24 months and placement stability for children in foster care.
Anita Howard is a program coordinator at Elon Homes and Schools for Children, where she works with adults aging out of foster care.
Though the number of children in foster care is decreasing in Mecklenburg, Howard said she hasn’t seen the effects on her end.
This could be because the system is harder for older children. Howard said many people don’t want to take in teenagers, which leads to more older children in the system who then age out. These kids may not have job skills or parental support.
Lee, of Cakes 4 Kids, said she is glad that Mecklenburg County is making the push to keep foster children with their families. She has five sisters herself, but she is only close to one because of the siblings’ separation in the foster care system. It’s affected her parenting now, she said.
“My girls … regularly ask to meet extended family, and I don’t know of anyone to introduce them to,” Lee said. She also doesn’t have the parental support to fall back on if she needs help or has questions, she said.
That’s another way she hopes to use Cakes 4 Kids, as a support system for families who can’t stay together. Howard said private agencies like Lee’s are necessary, because the county cannot handle events like birthdays that make a child feel loved.
“It takes a village,” she said. “It takes everything.”
Though Sullivan never expected Lee to use her lessons in the way she is now, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Look what she’s doing now,” she said. “It’s exciting to see that she found such a meaningful way to now do the same for others.”
If interested in supporting Cakes 4 Kids, please visit c4kclt.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org