The Park Scholars in the Class of 2025 explored leadership in North Carolina’s foster care system during Learning Lab I.
In a given year, there are approximately 437,000 youth in the United States foster care system, including over 17,000 children in North Carolina. That number has grown by more than 25% in the past five years.
These statistics were swirling around in the heads of the Class of 2025 as they entered Learning Lab I, a weekend of critical thinking, reflection, and motivation for change. Learning Lab I is an annual experience designed and implemented by first-year Park Scholars to provide insight into leadership through the lens of a challenge currently facing the people of North Carolina.
On March 25 and 26, the Park Scholarships Class of 2025 examined how leaders in various parts of the foster care system work together to address complex child welfare challenges facing communities across the state. Speakers from different sectors helped to illustrate the intersectionality of issues and the uniqueness of each child’s experience within the system.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to expect for organizing and carrying out Learning Lab I. Though I was anxious to serve as a co-chair, it was incredible to witness and help with the success of developing, planning, and finalizing such an enriching experience, and I have come to understand that this issue should be highly advocated,” explained Katie Dukelow ’25, co-chair of the Learning Lab I Committee.
In the days leading up to the program, students heard from Suzie Goodell, Class of 2024 Park Faculty Scholar and foster parent, and Adachi Amaram ’25, a fellow Park Scholar in their class. Questions from the class drove a productive discussion that laid a foundation for the weekend to come.
The first day of the experience took place in Charlotte, North Carolina, where students heard from a range of speakers that included the leaders of two foster care nonprofits as well as a legal panel complete with a judge, two attorneys, and two social workers who work on behalf of the Department of Social Services. Diverse perspectives gave Park Scholars the opportunity to think critically about the complex problems facing the system while discussion time allowed students to reflect on where the burden of responsibility should fall.
“The speakers each offered different perspectives based on their personal roles. From lawyers to social workers to community volunteers, each speaker was able to reflect on the foster care system as well as the leadership that they all exhibit in their endeavors,” described Brooke Eby ’25.
The second day of Learning Lab I took place in Raleigh and featured additional personal perspectives from a foster parent and former foster youth, as well as an interactive panel with leaders from various nonprofit organizations serving those in the foster care system. More small group discussions implored students to consider the ways application of their specific majors could benefit the foster care system, especially for majors beyond the scope of social sciences.
Despite some concerns about the pandemic interfering with the student’s abilities to meet with speakers and travel to Charlotte, the event was a success by all measures. “Learning Lab I was an invaluable experience,” said Ethan Baker ’25. “Our class not only got to speak with influential leaders from North Carolina, but also gained a rich perspective on foster care’s systemic problems. Our class is ready to address these issues head on in any way we can.”
Park Scholars explained that Learning Lab I prepared them with the skills and knowledge to make a difference.
“I left Learning Lab I feeling compelled to interact with my community members involved in the foster care system,” Eby concluded. “As a result of this experience, I will be seeking out opportunities to support children aging out of foster care, and possibly pursuing a guardian ad litem role in the future.”
Class of 2025 Learning Lab I Committee
- Pratik Bairoliya ’25
- Shay Barker ’25
- Shane Conroy ’25
- Katie Dukelow ’25, co-chair
- Madeline Scott ’25
- Helen Watson ’25
- Rylee Wienhold ’25, co-chair
Learning Lab I Schedule & Speakers
PRE-TRIP SESSION: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 23
4:00 p.m. | Dr. Suzie Goodell, Class of 2024 Park Faculty Scholar, and Adachi Amaram ’25, Park Scholar
DAY ONE: FRIDAY, MARCH 25: CHARLOTTE, N.C.
9:15 a.m. | Introduction and Welcome
9:25 a.m. | Selina Johnson, Executive Director, Least of These Carolinas
10:10 a.m. | Sloan Crawford, Co-founder/Board President of Foster Village Charlotte, and Becky Santoro, Co-founder/Director of Programs & Development of Foster Village Charlotte
10:55 a.m. | Gaile Osborne, Executive Director of Foster Family Alliance of NC, and Dr. Kate Norwalk, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, NC State University
1:00 p.m. | Dana Frady, MSW – Guardian ad Litem District Administrator, 26th Judicial District, Courthouse Tour and Presentation
1:30 p.m. | Jason Hicks, Assistant County Attorney, Davidson County, Sheri Woodyard, Assistant County Attorney, Davidson County, Katie Hall, attorney, Judge Carlos Jané, District Court Judge, and Laura Bodenheimer, guardian ad litem
2:50 p.m. | Group Reflection
3:45 p.m. | Cultural Activity: Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture
5:15 p.m. | Park Community Dinner
DAY TWO: SATURDAY, MARCH 26: RALEIGH, N.C.
9:15 a.m. | Introduction
9:30 a.m. | Dr. Robert Martinez, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Dr. Regina Gavin-Williams, Assistant Professor, North Carolina Central University
10:45 a.m. | Meredith Nicholson, Attorney at Law at NicholsonPham, PLLC
12:45 p.m. | Chantel Sherman, Director of Transition Programs at Hope Center at Pullen, Michelle Zechmann, CEO of Haven House Services, and Jessica Jones, Clinical Assessor/Placement Specialist at Youth Villages
2:00 p.m. | Group Reflection
3:15 p.m. | Sheila Donaldson, Assistant Division Director for the Wake County Department of Human Services/Division of Child Welfare
4:15 p.m. | Closing Remarks