Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Don Wells of Just in Time for Foster Youth Is Helping To Change Our World
Envision a group of people cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the ones who are charged to be the problem solvers in the organization. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”,, I had the pleasure of interviewing Don Wells.
Don is currently the Chief Empowerment Office for Just in Time for Foster Youth, a San Diego nonprofit whose mission is to empower hundreds of youths each year to gain self-sufficiency and well-being as they become confident, capable and connected. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with degrees in Psychology, History, and Political Science, and a certification to teach secondary education, Don began his career as a high school history and psychology teacher before three decades in media as an award-winning artist/animator, writer-producer, news director, marketing manager, and communications consultant, including receiving the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. Don joined Just in Time as a volunteer at the very first meeting back in 2003 and now leads the organization as it prepares to celebrate its 20th Anniversary, with the goal of scaling its community-based, youth-led impact model nationwide to 100,000 young people in transition.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Like most people, I had never thought much about foster care for most of my life.
Of course, there was the occasional horrific story about a poor child suffering abuse at the hands of a cruel foster parent but I assumed most foster kids got on a path to normal lives in safe, loving homes. I had no reason to believe otherwise and was not aware of anyone in my circle as I grew up in St. Louis who had been touched by foster care. I was fortunate to have been born into a stable family, with a mother and father who were present and powerful influences on their five children.
I believe every family has an invisible word or phrase engraved over their front door. For the Wells family, those words would have been Responsibility and Abundance. I took those words with me as I tried to find my place in the world. All the while, clarifying my particular purpose to be a catalyst to make things better. Maximizing potential.
I took a step closer while working at a local TV station in San Diego. The shock of the Columbine school shootings in April 1999 inspired me to use my position in Community Affairs to launch a campaign to recruit male mentors for young men who might otherwise take the same destructive path the two shooters took. Our goal was to sign up 1,000 male mentors by Father’s Day to guide others to a more positive result.
I became one of those thousand. I began mentoring Victor, a bright 9-year-old, and his younger sister by one year, Belen. They had both already been in and out of the foster care system for many years before we met, and a few months into our connection they found themselves back in care, with Jeanette Day as their lawyer advocate, three years before she co-founded Just in Time.
With Jeanette’s help, I was able to stay in Victor and Belen’s lives as a quasi-foster parent to provide some continuity. I also began to see what was in store for them. On one particular day, when Belen was 11 years old, we’d been watching a movie together, it was Shrek, when she suddenly turned to me and asked “Why are you still here?” At that moment, our three-year connection was the longest, continuous relationship ever with a caring adult.
That’s when it fully hit me: “No young person should ever have to ask themselves why truly caring and committed adults are still in their lives.”
So, I said yes when Jeanette asked me to come to the launch for a new nonprofit. I was there on the first planning day for Just in Time for Foster Youth in 2003, remained as a marketing volunteer over the next six years as I continued to remain a constant in the lives of Victor and Belen, joined the JIT Board in 2009 and, a few months later on Valentine’s Day 2010, I was asked to become the temporary part-time Executive Director for the organization with a powerful mission, one staff member and enormous potential to create change.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I would say the most interesting and unexpected thing was that I gradually discovered that my one choice — to recruit community mentors after Columbine — led to my entire life’s purpose coming into focus and connecting me to the most important people in my life today.
For some time, I had decided my purpose was to be a Catalyst, to grow my Capacity, and to make significant Connections. That meant making things better in the world, learning something new every day, and building authentic relationships. Just in Time ended up being my sweet spot. I can’t conceive of anything that could give me more satisfaction than the work I’m doing now. It is endlessly rewarding and continually energizing and, before I made that one choice, nonprofit work was nowhere on my radar. Also, all of the skills and experience I developed over my 35- year career, came together perfectly at Just in Time.
Once I started to lead the organization 12 years ago, I began to work closely with one of the co-founders and we’ll celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary later this year.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t know if this qualifies, but when I was asked to come off the Board for a short time to be JIT’s part-time, temporary Executive Director while they looked for someone, I made the mistake of thinking that was all it was going to be….an interim job while I was building a consulting business. It took me seven months before I asked where the candidates were. People laugh when I begin that story because they could see right away where it was going. Of course, looking back, that “mistake” turned into one of the greatest life-changing events of my life.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Just in Time’s original goal was to assist San Diego’s youth leaving foster care, ages 18–26, to attain and sustain self-sufficiency levels significantly higher than the national average for their group. That meant significantly improving their chances of: securing steady employment with decent pay and benefits; establishing and sustaining stable housing; responsibly managing their finances for the long term; forming families that they can support; steering clear of the criminal justice system; and making meaningful contributions throughout the San Diego community.
Moving toward that goal could have been enough to feel good about being helpful. The problem was that “good” just wasn’t enough to be transformative for those we served. No matter how many young people we helped each year, the child welfare system continued to leave them unprepared for adulthood and kept their transition uncertain, fragmented and difficult.
JIT was in no position to change the whole system. We didn’t have the resources, the clout or the answers to reimagine all of foster care. But we did have the capacity to reimagine the transition from care. In fact, we were fortunate that the key to real transformation in transition, the one critical thing no one had found a way to provide to transition age foster youth was actually an enormous untapped resource we could access — a caring community of volunteers.
I learned the “connection gap” lesson from Belen and applied it to Just in Time’s core belief about young people impacted by foster care. With the many gaps in resources that hinder young people in and after foster care, we focused on the one significant gap no one was addressing — a lifetime of uncertainty, doubt and disconnection that made everything else more difficult as they’re pushed into the world without the reliable, lasting relationships that all young people need.
JIT’s mission and fierce commitment is to end that disconnection for young people like Belen who had no expectation of lasting relationships. Building a reliable, responsive and real community has become the reason JIT exists. Filling gaps in resources and relationships, just as a family would for their own precious children, is our vision and promise.
That means old assumptions had to be challenged and set aside. And the words used to describe foster youth, their families, and their potential needed a long overdue examination because our words create our reality and precede our actions. The shift in thinking allowed us to innovate in ways that unleashed the power of everyone in our community. For example, that translated into college retention/graduation rates of 75–80% for our participants vs 3–6% college graduation rates for foster care impacted youth nationwide. It also meant that 91% of JIT alumni surveyed recently, now age 27–35, said they had broken the cycle of foster care.
It all starts with our mental model that drives all of our decisions. We see our participants as Creative, Resourceful and Whole people who grew up in challenging environments, not as “broken” children from “broken homes.” They are invited to connect to our community, not “placed” in programs that only meet their most basic needs, and they join our community voluntarily as we help them meet their own identified goals as partners in their success. The result is that providing access to life-changing choices leads to lasting, transformative change.
Our participants don’t feel the need to distance themselves from foster care experience but come to embrace their identity as part of a powerful, resilient community. They see themselves as role models, inspirations and exceptional people with bright futures and take ownership of their story and identity, with a strong internal sense of self and personal power.
They also create our community as JIT Coordinators, Managers, Directors and Volunteers to keep us honest and effective. They not only “learn how to fish” but join a “fishing village” that they can rely on for a sense of belonging and support.
Building a caring community of volunteers and peers for thousands of young people, reaching almost 1,600 in 2021, is what JIT has done for almost two decades. The feeling of community begins from the moment a youth comes through our doors and they’re greeted by our staff, a majority of them with lived experience in care. That first encounter immediately helps build a sense of trust because they’ve all been there. Unstable, uncertain but full of hope.
The community approach, driven by the youth we served and based on measurable impact and benefit, was what propelled the growth of services and resources and also expanded a $400,000 budget in 2009 to $5,000,000 by 2021, without any state or federal funding.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are so many but one that comes to mind is Caitlin.
She is the oldest of three girls in a family that was steeped in Adverse Childhood Experiences, otherwise known as ACEs. Their parents were absent because the fathers were either murdered, serving life sentences in prison, or just not around and their mother, who suffered from alcoholism, was also mostly absent, as was any hint of stability. By sixth grade, Caitlin had attended eight schools in four states. By the eighth grade, her mother started to be even more absent, disappearing without notice or explanation for weeks at a time. Which is why, at 13, Caitlin dropped out of school to make money to survive, a situation foster youth everywhere face.
At 15, Caitlin was taken to Juvenile Hall where she was confined, a ward of the court, for almost 3 years. Decisions were made for her by court judges and probation officers and social workers.
But she didn’t give up. Caitlin began to take advantage of educational opportunities, passed her GED, and started community college courses online while still in custody. Unfortunately, she was released from detention to a group home in Los Angeles, where she stayed for only six months before she ran away and found herself surviving on the streets and hooked on drugs.
Eventually, Caitlin relocated to downtown San Diego, living between two shopping carts under a blue tarp with a needle in her arm every day. She later told us that she felt her whole life was a purposeless mistake at that time, sure she was destined to be dead or in prison soon enough.
Then, unexpectedly, Caitlin found out she was pregnant. Determined to save the life of her child, she quit everything cold turkey, even smoking cigarettes. She enrolled in community college, got a minimum-wage job, and gave birth to a perfectly healthy, beautiful baby girl. But she was still struggling, couch surfing, and scared of her new responsibility to raise a little human.
Then one day, Caitlin heard a radio ad for Just in Time and instinctively knew this might be a pathway to a new life. She immediately made her way to the Just in Time headquarters, where she was welcomed into our community. Caitlin attended every workshop and event she could; she opened a bank account and started saving and investing through our Financial Fitness service. My First Home furnished her first apartment, and Caitlin enjoyed a beautiful holiday season with her daughter in her new home. And Rise to Resilience gave her a safe place to open up about her childhood traumas and begin the healing process.
Now she’s in her final year at San Diego State University, in a loving and healthy relationship, getting stronger every day, and trying her best to be the greatest parent she can be.
By the way, she’s also Just in Time’s Lead Community Outreach Partner, forging relationships with key investors, and helping to build our alumni community of participants who are now over 27 but still connected.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Many think America’s child welfare systems are badly broken, with children suffering serious harm as a result. When we understand the origins of foster care in our country going back to the Orphan Trains of the 1800’s, it becomes clear that the results we’re getting today are the consequence of a system fulfilling its original intention based on a mental model that drove the original design.
Those underlying beliefs, thinking and logic — translate into problem solving that inevitably leads to what would otherwise be unacceptable outcomes. Nothing will change until this 150-year-old mental model is replaced:
“Broken” children from “broken homes” whose parents cannot care for them due to poverty, illness, addiction, abuse and neglect should be removed from their deficient parents. Some will be further abused in systems that are supposed to protect them.
They should be “placed” outside their communities with new, upright foster families, if at all possible, and provided with basic shelter and education. Instead of being safely reunified with their families — or moved quickly into adoptive homes — many will languish in foster care for years.
Some children may be put “up for adoption” and, in the process siblings may be separated and it may not be possible to give these placements enough oversight. Children in the system will likely face obstacles ranging from the prejudice of classmates to feeling like outsiders in their family placements.
Many children can be expected to lose their identity through repeated moves, bounced from one foster care placement to another, never knowing when they will be uprooted. Many people will view them as incorrigible offspring of addicts and lowlifes.
So, the One Thing that can really address the root causes of the problem is a shift in thinking that changes everything and unleashes the power of everyone in our community.
Our young people are Creative, Resourceful and Whole who grew up in challenging environments, not “broken” children from “broken homes.”
They must be invited to connect to a community, not “placed” in programs that only meet their most basic needs, a community they join voluntarily as we help them meet their own identified goals as partners in their success.
They won’t feel the need to distance themselves from foster care experience but come to embrace their identify as part of a powerful, resilient community, seeing themselves as role models, inspirations and exceptional people with bright futures.
They will take ownership of their story and identity, with a strong internal sense of self and personal power, no longer invisible. As they not only “learn how to fish” but join a “fishing village” that they can rely on for a sense of belonging and support.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
An answer can be found in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in a demonstration of managers vs leaders. The story goes like this:
Envision a group of people cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the ones who are charged to be the problem solvers in the organization. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.
Their managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved cutting techniques based on the latest best practice research and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.
But somebody who is not steeped in the accepted mental model and prevailing paradigm of the organization climbs the tallest tree to achieve the clearest vision of what’s happening, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Everybody! This is the wrong jungle!”
But the problem solvers and managers respond “Leave us alone! We’re making great progress.”
For me, this highlights a core feature of leadership, the ability to see outside the current reality and have the vision to suggest that different ways of thinking, not just new ways of working, are necessary to achieve different outcomes.
That vision and courage is in some ways the definition of leadership and fortunately leadership can be found in many places. In some ways it’s easier to flourish outside existing systems. That was true for a group of San Diego women who looked at the transition out of foster care from a different vantage point back in 2003 and changed the conversation by founding Just in Time.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
First, the importance of affirmation in the purpose-driven space of non-profits. Of course, it’s also important in the corporate world but, because of the motivation to “do good” for people who work in non-profits, the importance is elevated. That’s why we start our weekly staff meetings with everyone giving affirmations tied to our core values.
Second, the importance of measuring impact rather than outcomes. It’s not about how many people participated in a financial literacy course and open a bank account. What shows the real value would be projecting what percentage of those participants who became consistent savers and then tracking how well you did so that you can prove and improve what you offer.
Third, the importance of building a strong Board partnership, especially the Board chair. I was spoiled when I started because that partnership was there from the beginning, to the point that we later got married! Over the years, I’ve learned that progress slows when the partnership is not there and is turbo-charged when it is. This past year, Just in Time won an award for Good Governance from University of San Diego’s Nonprofit Institute largely because of that key relationship between CEO and Board Chair.
Fourth, you already know everyone necessary to get all the support you need. We learned that from a development consultant and saw it realized when one of our Board members discovered she had an old friend who headed up a foundation that eventually led to our first $1M multi-year grant.
The last thing I wish someone told me is that I would find my soulmate while doing this work. It would have made the whole courtship faster.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We practice something in our community that we call the JIT Coach Approach. It’s a way of being in connection with someone where you put aside your agenda so that instead of judging, telling the other person what to do and fixing their “problem,” give your full attention by active listening to really understand what they’re sharing, ask curious questions to clarify the information that may still be missing, and then ask powerful questions to empower them to find their own answers.
We began this as a way of increasing the effectiveness of our volunteers, but it’s grown into something much more than learning to be a better mentor. It’s a very simple, direct way to be a better friend, spouse, parent, co-worker and citizen. So, a Coach Approach movement would be a powerful alternative to all the contentious conversations that are so pervasive in our world today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Reality wins. That phrase has been key to focusing my energy. Rather than spending time lamenting what “should have” happened, what expectation I had that wasn’t met, or what decisions people made that don’t make sense to me, I simply remind myself that it’s reality and I need to shift my expectation and keep moving. It actually keeps me on a more creative and empowered place to stop looking at the wall that’s blocking me and find another path.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-
I believe McKenzie Scott would be very interested in learning about Just in Time. That said, in keeping with my belief that we know everyone necessary to get the support we need, I’ll add that I now know you! So, I fully expect this new connection to lead to other like-minded individuals who will be inspired and motivated to join our community of life-changing choices.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Your readers can go to https://jitfosteryouth.org for more information about our work but to really get connected to the JIT experience, they can join and follow our new online community, the JIT Network, https://jitnetwork.org/discovery.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Don Wells of Just in Time for Foster Youth Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.