WHITNEY GILLIARD: Child Advocate and Founder of Gilliard and Company
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” — Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela had it right when he said those words. Children are a nation’s greatest asset. And though everyone knows the importance of nurturing and caring for the youngest and most vulnerable among us, most people don’t know the realities of children living in “the system.”
According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, there are over 437,000 youth in America’s foster care system. We’d like to believe most of these children are in foster homes with loving foster parents, but that isn’t usually the case. Thousands of children are living in group homes, mental facilities, and detention centers instead of homes.
Whitney Gilliard knows the horrors of being in these facilities versus living with loving foster parents, and she wants people to know the realities of the foster care system. Even more, she wants to change that reality for the better.
She and her husband, Maurice, co-founded Gilliard and Company to do just that. Their mission is “Meeting the Needs of Foster Care.” The non-profit organization is a transitional housing program for youth aging out of foster care, and it’s a cause close to Whitney Gilliard’s heart. She has lived through some of the worst situations imaginable, but she is now using those experiences to help others.
When she was just five years old, Gilliard was sexually abused by a family friend who lived with her grandparents. The abuse continued for years until she finally ran away when she was 14. Unfortunately, she ran right into the arms of another predator whom she met via social media. She was then arrested for running away, and spent the next few years institutionalized in various facilities.
Even though Gilliard had been a victim of sexual assault and neglect, she says she was treated more like a prisoner. From juvenile detention centers to residential treatment facilities, she spent much of her adolescence as a mental patient instead of a child. To make matters worse, when she was finally placed with her first set of foster parents, her new foster mother got cancer, and so Gilliard was without a guardian yet again. She was heartbroken, but she never stopped hoping and praying.
Gilliard’s lucky break finally came when she met Bill and Rosemary Wright. They took a chance and fostered a traumatized teenager, and their love and guidance changed the trajectory of her life. She finally got what every child deserves: loving caregivers and a safe and comfortable home.
For so many years, she thought her circumstances were her fault; she felt like she had no voice. Now it is her life’s mission to give children in the foster care system that voice she felt she never had.
Gilliard is well aware she is one of the lucky ones. She knows thousands of foster children like her will never get that happy ending. “Leaving foster care, you sign out when you’re eighteen. That hour, when you sign out, it doesn’t matter if you have no place to go,” explains Gilliard. “Foster homes are very scarce in our location, even here in our community, so wherever they’re at, even if they got discharged from a juvenile detention center--Literally, you sign on a piece of paper and you’re done. You’re on your own.”
The statistics do not bode well for those who age out with nowhere to go: Approximately one in four of them will be incarcerated within two years of leaving the foster care system, and only half of them will graduate from high school. This is why she created Gilliard and Company. “They end up homeless,” she says. “A lot end up committing suicide. That’s why we do what we do.” There is an urgent need to help these young adults and all children in the foster care system, and she is fulfilling that need in Pooler and the surrounding areas.
G&Co’s Independent Living Program (ILP) provides transitional living assistance to young adults ages 18 to 21. They provide all expenses for apartment-style housing, with a staff that assists with daily challenges like seeking higher education and connecting with employers in the community. The program guides them to achieve success and independence.
This Independent Living Program is invaluable to youth leaving the foster care system. Marisa Pierce, Director of ILP, explains that society may label 18-year-olds as adults, but they are not always fully functioning adults at that age. “We are raising them like they are children,” she says.
Some of them struggle with low literacy and high emotions, but Pierce and Gilliard both believe they are making a difference. From helping with job applications to seeing them employed and learning to live independently, it’s a rewarding experience to see how far they’ve come.
In addition to the Independent Living Program, Gilliard also saw a need for a safe space in the DFCS building as well. She explains that children often get removed from their foster homes for a variety of reasons. Most children will spend that time at a government office waiting to be placed somewhere else.
“Instead of waiting in a government office building and sleeping on a desk for hours at a time--a kid can stay there twelve hours--let’s give them a room where they’re comfortable,” Gilliard says. So she created HavINN. It’s a trauma intervention room in DFCS where a child can stay during their transition within foster care. There, the child can sleep and relax in a comfortable setting rather than waiting in an office.
G&Co also provides other ways for people to help this cause. Anyone can go to the website and donate money, write cards, give gifts, become a mentor or volunteer.
The biggest need right now is monthly donors, who can sign up for as little as ten dollars a month. It may not seem like a lot, but monthly donations are essential in keeping these programs running smoothly.
She knows not everyone is able to become a foster parent, but she urges the community to help in any way they can. She welcomes anyone with a heart for service to help her cause. “If you have an opportunity to be a mentor, please do it,” she pleads. “If you have an opportunity to foster, please do it.”
She also has a message for those who never got adopted and for those who are dealing with the trauma of abuse: “It’s a bad day. It’s not a bad life,” she says. “You have the opportunity to make life how you want it. Just because you’re not fostered or adopted, it doesn’t mean you’re less of a person.”
When asked how she survived all of the abuse and the years without a family, Gilliard doesn’t miss a beat. “God,” she says, without hesitation. “Even today, it’s God.” She still lives with PTSD and night terrors from the trauma, but prayer helps her. “I have a very strong, solid faith,” she adds. “I wouldn’t be able to get through this could I not be able to talk to my God.”
She may have experienced trauma in her past, but she is choosing to turn her test into a testimony of what she is capable of. She plans to pursue a clinical degree in trauma therapy, so she can counsel abused children. More immediately, she wants to expand G&Co from the small niche of foster care and provide even more programs aimed at tackling poverty, homelessness and food security.
Whitney Gilliard has made an incredible impact in the community. She has dedicated her life to advocating for children who don’t have a voice, and with any luck, Gilliard and Company will continue to help children and positively impact our area for years to come. For more information, visit www.gilliardandcompany.org.