Meghan Olson has spent her adult life as an advocate for children. She is the executive director of The Ferrer Foundation, which she founded in 2007 with a mission to help children with an incarcerated parent. Its broader goal is to “implement educational wellness, violence prevention and motivational, strength-based programming for children in underserved communities and schools” in Chicago. Those interested in helping her foundation can do so at www.ferrerfoundation.org.
Most people try several different career paths, at least early on, but you seem to have been very singularly focused on working with children through your adult life. Why do you think that has been so?
I’ve always cared about children’s issues and advocating. An event in my own life brought me to the problem of children with a parent in jail or prison. I’d met a lot of children who had a parent incarcerated but I had never fully realized the effect it can have on a family and individually. I’ve seen the lack of resources for those kids, and seen how easily they can end up in jail, too.
Did you always plan on working with children?
I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was younger. But I’ve always worked with kids, it seems. One of my best friends and I started a babysitting service and we did that through high school. I also worked as a counselor in camps or preschool programs when I was in high school. I knew I had an interest in child development and family studies, so that’s what I studied [at Arizona State].
Have you ever had a traditional “office job”?
After college I tried being in the corporate world. I worked as a recruiter with a placement firm but I found myself acting more like a social worker with people than as a business person. I interviewed with the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Early Childhood Education and was part of some innovative programs with them. I worked with a lot of teen parents on home living arrangements and helped the teens and their children from prenatal care to 3 years.
I guess I’ve always had an interest in under-resourced families and children. There’s such a lack of support and empowerment. It needs to be addressed and I just saw the need.
In working with Chicago schools, did you feel you made a difference? Did you see results?
Yes. But, honestly, only if I deviated from the way the programs were set up.
They weren’t structured for success?
I felt it was keeping people down, not empowering them. I had to leave after awhile because I saw women being set up to fail. We weren’t meeting women and children where they were at. We were trying to instill someone else’s values.
In your experience, does it often happen that programs for urban kids aren’t reality-based?
Yes. That’s why I think it’s important to try to take a holistic approach to solving problems. There are so many variables to each child’s problems. It has been hard for me to put into words what Ferrer Foundation does because we try to meet kids where they’re at and not pigeonhole them. There are so many different things that a family might need. We’re not interested in meeting a quota or telling people how to run their lives.
Was it when you left the Chicago Public Schools that you founded The Ferrer Foundation?
I left CPS due to a family problem. My father was indicted in federal court in Puerto Rico, so I had to take a leave of absence. He was exonerated in federal court, but the same evidence was used then to claim that he had bribed people. So he had a second, separate trial. There was no new evidence; it was just very, very unfair.
I started helping my father with his business because he wasn’t emotionally available. His business was in education, with software, and I helped him for a few years. My father was retried and after a five-day trial he was put in jail.
That must have been awful for all of you.
It was. We didn’t go to the trial. His lawyers said everything would be fine because there was no new evidence. It was shocking to see my father in jail. He’s been an advocate for children, too. I watched him grow his business and watched him always try to do the right thing. It’s what he taught his own children.
There was a priest who intervened, someone we didn’t know, who got us in to see my dad, because we’d been cut off when he went to jail. It made me realize that there’s a whole group of children who don’t have anyone advocating for them and going into the schools to explain what’s going on in their lives.
Your family’s experience was the impetus for The Ferrer Foundation?
Yes, It took about three years to understand what these children needed. We’re still in the growth stages and experimenting with some things. The Cook County Sheriff’s Department wants to collaborate with us, so we’ll do a program with kids who have a parent in the county jail.
Where does the Ferrer name come from?
The priest who helped us in Puerto Rico. His name was Miguel Ferrer, and he passed away soon after he helped us.
How difficult was creating the foundation? Did you seek sponsors?
It was such a labor of love that I didn’t think about how difficult the challenge was. I had an opportunity to interview so many kids. I was still working for the family business at first and working at night to set up Ferrer. Writing proposals and trying to get partnerships to make it happen. I knew it was the right thing for me to do. It was tough but I thought about the kids.
Your experience must have given you added energy.
Sure. I think my own heartache was just channeled into it. Knowing there was a higher purpose made my father’s situation easier [to accept] and kept me going.
How extensive are your programs now?
Right now, we work with about 100 kids. We’re doing a pilot program to make sure it works. We work with schools within Chicago Public Schools. Most of the kids have had or have a parent in jail or a parent suffering from addiction. We collaborate with some other organizations that have been around longer, which helps, and I guess if you take that into account we work with more than 100 kids. Maybe 500. But it changes month to month.
Tell me about your Bright Light Project.
That is a little more extensive. There’s a group of women involved with [Cook County Sheriff’s Department] Women’s Justice Services and we work with their children. It’s more a more holistic approach that includes yoga and meditation and wellness programs. It’s more to empower and give kids hope and to let them know that they have choices. Many of these kids don’t feel they do because of what’s happened in their life. They may be living with a relative or in foster care.
Has yoga been a part of your life for long?
It has. Meditation, too. When my father was being tried, a dear friend, Elesa Commerse, gave me a scholarship for a meditation program that she was doing. It helped me a lot and it inspired me to try it with kids.
Have the kids warmed to yoga and mediation?
I wasn’t sure they would. Especially the boys. But they loved it so much that they asked to do it over and over. They said, “This is the first time in my life that I knew how to feel peaceful.” The response was unbelievable.
But I really wasn’t sure how they’d react. The kids we work with have been exposed to so much violence. Sometimes I can’t believe what I hear from them about what they’ve seen. But this is a way to be positive. And silent. So many of them have so much chaos around them that they welcome a bit of silence.
The boys, too?
Oh, they loved the meditation pillow I had that had lavender in it. They wanted to keep it. They said if they had a pillow like that they could close their eyes at night and sleep and not be scared.
With the yoga, I tell them they can close their eyes or keep them open if they want because a lot of the kids have been through so much that the memories are intense when they close their eyes.
What have learned about the best ways to reach the kids you work with?
Well, there’s a lot of resistance when you address a group of kids and tell them what to do. You become another authority figure. I’ve learned that it’s more effective to talk to kids individually and not tell them what to do but ask them things, like what makes them smile. It can be very small things. One girl said she wanted a bird house and we got one for her.
That’s so poignant. Where do you think you get the strength to do the mission you have every day? There must be joys, certainly, but there must also be heartbreaks daily.
I get the strength from the kids. They bring such joy to my every day; they’re such brilliant souls that I’m grateful to work with them.
But there are days when I get in my car and I cry because of the sadness. The meditation helps, and I know I need down time occasionally.
How would like to see Ferrer Foundation evolve?
I would love to have a wellness center for kids to go to before or after school and during the summer. I would love to have a place where they could come to that would feel like home. When I watched the kids leave the school programs for the summer and I knew I wouldn’t see them again until August…well, I really wanted to have something for them in summer.
A place of beauty where they know they’re loved and cared about.