Santana Lee – 35th Annual Black Excellence Awards Honoree

Social Services

Santana Lee

Santana Lee didn’t have to attend school to learn about some of the barriers and challenges that children in foster care or kinship care face; she lived it. She is thankful that her paternal grandmother stepped up to take her and her two brothers in and raised them during most of their primary years.

“Life was okay growing up as I knew it. My dad was in and out of my life because he was in the military and when he was no longer in the military, he worked two jobs. He provided financial support to my grandmother, who I am grateful to for taking us in,” said Santana.

A teen mom, Santana graduated from an alternative high school before attending Kaplan College, where she earned a dental assistant certification. She then went to Milwaukee Area Technical Collage (MATC) and took some psychology courses.

Santana is now the Executive Director of All4Kidz, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that she founded to help youth in foster care with healing and give them a safe space to discuss their feelings.

“I saw other organizations engaged with children in foster care, but they were not focused on emotional healing. There were programs to assist them with employment, housing and other issues, but none of that matters if they haven’t dealt with the pain and trauma in their lives. All4Kidz is a way to help youth learn how to heal the core of who they are and what they have gone through before they get pushed out into the real world,” she said.

A unique aspect of All4Kidz is that it is youth-based, youth-focused and youth-driven. The goal of the organization is to create a brotherhood and sisterhood among the youth to help them heal each other.

“Sometimes youth come into our program with the notion that adults are disrespecting them. In a group setting, everybody takes turns giving the others constructive criticism and feedback to help them with their issues. They groom each other. They eat together and fellowship together. I cook for every group, and we develop a comradery to help them help each other. The youth do all the work; I’m just there to facilitate. They each have individual goals, even though the program is group-based. In addition, they have small, every day, quarterly and yearly goals to keep them motivated and focused on positive outcomes,” she said.

The mother of nine children herself—three of whom she adopted—Santana uses some of those same principles to run her household.

“We function as a team. Everyone has a role and responsibility, but we all work together. We have a lot of structure and I attribute that to the fact that my father was in the military. There’s a lot of discipline taking place; it helps us to keep things stress-free, as a result, everyone feels supported,” she said.

Santana is grateful that she had individuals in her life who instilled morals and values in her, and helped nurture her into womanhood.

“Three women helped make me who I am today; and the number-one person was my grandmother. I also had a cousin who took me in after I had my second child. She nourished me and took care of me until I was able to take care of myself. My son’s grandmother also played a strong role in helping me. These women held me up when I was still trying to figure out how to be a woman and how to be a mom.

“I also had the male influence of my oldest brother, who passed away when I was 15 years old. He was always supportive and protective. He helped me set standards and goals for myself and told me that I could achieve anything if I put my mind to it. His belief in me helped me to believe in myself,” she said.

The support system Santana experienced energizes her to support the youth in her program. At any one time she is working with more than 20 youth—male and female—from 11 to 21 years old. They are referred to her mostly by word of mouth. She has also developed strong referral connections with group homes and foster care organizations.

“They appreciate the relationship and rapport that I have with the youth. I meet with the girls’ group and boys’ group on separate days, once a week. On Saturdays I do home visits with the youth and I make follow up calls with them on Mondays and Tuesdays of every week.

“Each youth has my personal cell phone number, so I’m available for them to reach me any time. I also provide one-on-one services for youth who are uncomfortable in group settings. All4Kidz has a youth leadership component, for youth who are more mature. In addition to developing their leadership skills, they take part in speaking opportunities to give individuals a perspective on issues they deal with in the community. They’ve participated in radio and television interviews,” she said.

“I don’t have any challenges working with the youth, but there are some challenges because of the way some laws are set up to prevent youth from succeeding. For example, youth age out of foster care and try to go into independent living arrangements. They are basically homeless because returning to their own home is not a realistic option. Case managers are so overloaded that they don’t or can’t always work to help them get in a position so they can thrive, so youth are put on the back burner because helping them find housing and employment is not a priority.

“I am wholeheartedly passionate about protecting, advocating and helping youth become great, successful, productive adults in the community,” she said.