SGLocal NYC Launches with Pilot Project on NYC Foster Care

September 6, 2011

By Jacqui Palumbo

© Heather Walsh

22-year old Dmitriy has just recently aged out of the foster care system after being shuffled between group homes and institutional homes his entire life.<br />

SalaamGarage is a volunteer organization of freelance journalists and photographers dedicated to promoting positive social change.  Founded in 2007 by Amanda Koster, the group has traveled around the world giving exposure to humanitarian stories that are unreported in the mainstream media. While SalaamGarage continues to thrive and expand, the need for local chapters has risen to reach more areas and to allow more photographers and journalists to contribute in their own cities. SGLocal-NYC is the first of its kind, a pilot chapter dedicated to covering humanitarian causes in the backyards of New York City’s five boroughs.

The chapter chief and lead producer of SGLocal-NYC is Maggie Soladay, a photo editor who has been with SalaamGarage as a trip leader since 2009. “It has been my goal for years to encourage all photographers to give back,” she says, and SalaamGarage has provided a way for her to do so. Soladay has had remarkable experiences with the organization, such as a trip to Ethiopia in 2010 for a project on the devastating, but preventable birthing injury obstetric fistula. They met two women who had traveled a great distance to Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital for surgery, but did not have any means to get back to their villages. David Goldman, a photographer on the project, spent nearly a thousand dollars of his own money to hire a driver and escort the women home and documented their stories on the way.

It is work like this that Soladay wishes all photographers could do from time-to-time, but she understands that humanitarian projects can be time-consuming and expensive to put together. SGLocal provides a way for photographers and journalists to do pro-bono work with ease. Experienced SG producers build relationships with organizations so that the photographers and journalists can spend their time creating the stories. SGLocal also differs from SalaamGarage in that projects can last for a longer period of time with larger teams and all of the projects cost nothing for contributors. SGLocal is available to more photographers who want to volunteer but do not have the time or money to join SalaamGarage’s international projects.

The first project SGLocal-NYC is tackling is called “Aging-Out of Foster Care in NYC.” The idea came from photographer Yvonne Allaway, who named “mistreatment and neglect of youth in foster care” as the top inequality in New York City that she wanted to change. Research shows dismal statistics for those who age out of the foster care system; many young adults end up in poverty or homeless. There is also little awareness of what happens to those who grow up in the foster system. SGLocal’s aim is to put a face to the statistics and to raise awareness of both their stories and the organizations and programs trying to make a difference.

SGLocal assigns photographers and journalists primarily by locality; Soladay wants contributors to work within their own neighborhoods when possible. Then they are matched depending on the subject’s age and gender and the experience and interests of the contributors. Photographer Heather Walsh, co-producer on the foster care project, was matched up with twenty-two-year-old Dmitriy for the first story. Dmitriy was born in Russia and placed in an orphanage before being adopted by an American family in New York who mistreated him. They put him into the foster care system after three years and he moved between an institutional home and two foster care group homes until he turned twenty-one. A year later, he lives on his own and makes a living working for the Oyster Bay Department of Sanitation. Walsh’s project is ongoing, but she has begun by photographing him at home in his personal space.

Twenty-one-year-old Linda has been telling her story to photographer Ian Spanier and his wife, writer Carrie Vining Spanier. Linda was born to a drug-addicted mother along with four brothers and two sisters. At age three, she and her siblings were abandoned and scattered amongst the foster care system. Linda has lived in so many places she can’t count them all, but knows her longest placement lasted only a little over a year. She has experienced abuse and mistreatment her entire life and became a runaway at fourteen, only to return when she became pregnant with her son, Lavontae. Carrie Spanier says, “Her bond with her son is the strongest and longest bond she has ever had with a family member. When asked how she feels about that, she responded, ‘I feel great, I already beat my mom,’ meaning she’s been able to care for her son longer than her mom cared for her.”

So far, 18 young adults who grew up in New York City metro area foster care have agreed to participate along with 15 photographers/videographers and 10 writers/reporters. Project formats are flexible and will vary from project to project. Creative contributors can publish in any medium they choose as long as they have a version that is book-ready. A book version of “Aging-Out of Foster Care in NYC” is currently being put together and 100% of proceeds will go to local organizations helping foster care young adults transition to an independent life.

SGLocal-NYC is the “working model” for all other chapters that will open. SalaamGarage aims to open chapters in Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle, Los Angeles, or anywhere that there is interest. To apply for the NYC chapter, participants must fill out an application with an idea for a project, their roles and where they will pitch for publication. Contributors must be committed to publishing their story online or in print. For more information, visit their Web site. To get involved, join their meetup group here.