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Rising Stars: Meet Janet Rinaldi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Janet Rinaldi.

Hi Janet, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
My journey in the foster care world actually began about 14 years ago. After losing four babies, and having one miracle baby girl of my own, I decided to become a foster parent, and adopted one of my daughters at three years old, after having fostered her for a year and a half. While I fostered many other children during that time, I knew the minute she came through my door and jumped into my arms that she was my daughter. Three months after her adoption was final, my sister passed away, and I became permanent guardian of my niece. Several months later, I went through a divorce, and became a single mom of three. During this time I owned my own business, with my girls growing up there learning all about being an entrepreneur and building strong work ethics. Fast forward a couple years, and I met my husband, who was a father of four. He absolutely loves being a Dad, and I love being a Mama, so the thought of combining families with seven kids did not intimidate us. Maybe it should have!! Our families merged extremely well, although not without its own set of challenges.

Three years ago, we made it official in a surprise wedding ceremony that all of our children were a part of. So now imagine a blended family, created through biology, adoption, guardianship, and marriage, there was a lot going on. Add into that my adopted daughter has significant special needs, and we had two children dealing with considerable trauma. We often felt like we were living on an island with no support system! I began reaching out to friends who were foster parents, and others who had adopted, and they started introducing me to their friends who had done the same, and a little community was born. I began speaking the hard truths that nobody really talks about with trauma, adoption, and blended families, and found that I actually wasn’t alone, it just wasn’t being talked about. This began my passion to build community and offer encouragement and support to other families experiencing this as well. A little over a year ago, I sold my business to follow my passion. I began working with West Florida Foster Care, a licensing agency serving Hillsborough County, as their Director of Family Advocacy. This was a new position, created to fill a crucial need in providing hands on support to families throughout the county who are doing the hard work of fostering.

Approximately 50% of foster parents do not renew their license after one year, because they are already experiencing burnout. They desperately need support, and we are now able to offer that to them in a variety of ways. Some of the things we do are meal deliveries, providing gift cards for needed items, and reaching out regularly to provide emotional support. We also opened two foster closets, in order to relieve the financial burden of fostering and provide everything from baby gear and toys to clothes, shoes, and school uniforms. We are serving not only WFFCS families, but all foster families throughout the county. Our goal is to open several more closets so that they are easily accessible to all families regardless of the area of Hillsborough they live in.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
Smooth roads do not make for interesting stories, and ours has definitely not been smooth! On a personal level, I’ve experienced struggles in learning to parent from a trauma perspective, and learning to navigate my child’s special needs to become her strongest advocate. We have struggled with various aspects of blending a family, although I will say that even though that comes with its own set of significant challenges, we have great kids who have become strong siblings. On a professional level, it has been amazing to see the impact that practical service has had on our foster families. Just knowing you are not alone is empowering and provides a strength and determination to keep going that is so needed in the foster community. We are still working to educate the community on the needs of the foster care system, primarily in our mantra that while everyone cannot take a child into their home, everyone can do something to help.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
What sets our agency apart is truly the advocacy piece. Our families are not licensed and then sent out to foster on their own. We are actively reaching out, identifying needs, and filling those needs. We do this with the help of a fantastic team of volunteers, as well as from partnerships within the community. Some of those partnerships were born through COVID-19, where we were intentional about reaching out to local restaurants to provide meals to our foster families, which was a tremendous blessing to our families, but also helped these restaurants while many were struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. We have also partnered with a local downsizing agency, that talks to their clients about donating their un-needed furniture and household items to foster care, where it is then passed along to both foster and biological families. This enables our foster families to be equipped to say yes when a child needs a home, because now they have an extra bed, or an extra dresser, or a dining room table that everyone can sit together at for a meal. This also helps biological families that are working hard to reunify with their children, and need help setting up a safe home environment. Our foster closets are already serving hundreds of families each month, and we expect that number to continue to grow as we are able to open more locations.

We’d love to hear about how you think about risk taking?
So while I will tell you I am not generally a fan of change; I am a fan of taking necessary risks. My first risk was buying my business, for sure, and my second risk professionally was selling that business to pursue my passion. I think it’s so important that when you see a need, you fill the need. It can be very scary to step out into the unknown, but I truly believe with a lot of heart and an inordinate amount of hustle, you can make anything happen. A big risk I took during COVID-19 was ensuring our families we would continue to meet their needs, even though we could no longer hold in person fundraising events. As a non-profit, we are largely dependent on our donors. We were able to provide over 400 delivered meals from local restaurants solely through a social media driven fundraising campaign called Feed A Foster Family. We were also able to help our families that experienced financial strain due to the pandemic by another social media driven fundraising campaign called Help Fill Their Carts. In a time when everyone was affected in some way, we saw people come through in amazing ways. When we saw the crisis of children having to do e-learning, and our families having taken on numerous children, but not having devices for them to do school, we partnered with eSmart Recycling, and collected donations of old electronics, that they used to build new computers for our families.

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Image Credits
Howie Mac Photo

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