Visual graphic that states the title of the article and the author: "MNYTD Foster Care Study: From Participant to Consultant. By Russell Barnes"

Headshot of Russell BarnesTo my colleagues, I’m a lot of things. I’m louder than neon colors, as positive as a proton, and a wrestling super fan. But not all my coworkers know that I spent seven years in Minnesota’s foster care system. Interestingly enough, my status as a foster youth also led me to discovering a career I love at The Improve Group. While I’m always grateful for my IG family, I’m even more grateful for it now, during National Foster Care Month.

When I was 17, I was a part of the first ever cohort of the Minnesota Youth in Transition Database, Minnesota’s version of the National Youth in Transition Database. As part of this Minnesota Department of Human Services project, IG is keeping tabs on a cohort of 200+ youth over the span of four years as they transition out of foster care. Most of these youth, including myself, spent time in foster care within 45 days of their 17th birthday. Case managers survey the youth at age 17, and we follow up with the same youth at ages 19 and 21. One method used to track youth was a Facebook account with an unusually blue avatar (but not THAT Avatar) that sent me a friend request back in 2011. This Facebook account helps IG develop relationships with youth and maintain higher than national average participation rates in the survey. This survey is important for youth in Minnesota—if participation rates are too low, the state risks losing funding to programs that provide opportunities for various youth in transition. These programs give youth the opportunity to attend college at affordable rates, secure safe housing, and stay away from crime. These are all statistically much harder for youth in transition— including foster youth—to secure.

More than five years after participating in the MNYTD study myself, IG reached out asking if I was interested in part-time work. I officially joined the MNYTD project—this time as a consultant versus as a participant—in March 2017, and realized how much I enjoy research and data collection. Within a few months, I was offered a full-time position to work at IG, and have since expanded to working on a range of projects.

I knew I found a perfect career match. I get to connect with colleagues and clients in a personal matter, analyze the impacts of efforts to make the world a better place, and learn something new every day. IG’s desire to have an impact on the foster care system through the MNYTD survey is fantastic, and it also provided me an opportunity to discover a phenomenal career that pushes me to grow personally and professionally. It really doesn’t get much better than that. This Foster Care Awareness Month, I am grateful to reflect on a path that led me right here to IG.