The New Jersey Foster Parent Association (NJFPA, now Foster and Adoptive Family Services or FAFS) began in a foster parent’s home in Middlesex County, New Jersey in the early 1970s. As the need for advocacy grew, FAFS obtained a contract from the state and eventually moved from New Brunswick to Trenton, New Jersey. This brought the NJFPA in closer proximity to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), which is now known as the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P). A lot of progression has occurred since then. However, with the transition of FAFS and the many changes that have occurred it rings true that with change, the mission remains the same.
FAFS was headquartered in Trenton throughout the 1980s before returning to its permanent home in Middlesex County in 1994. Sue Dondiego, one of FAFS’ founders noted, “From its humble beginnings as an all volunteer organization to the present day, FAFS has focused their time, talents and hard work to develop programs, projects and activities that would improve the lives of resource parents and the children in their care.” What started with just a handful of people in 1974 has developed into an organization of many people with the talents and backgrounds that form the thriving group FAFS is today.
The Transition of FAFS – Working Side by Side with the Dondiegos
Hattie Talley, a FAFS founder, served as the first president of the organization. Bernie and Sue Dondiego, also founders, both also served as president. The Dondiegos also worked on the board and were a great support to the staff. Over the years, Bernie has functioned in many capacities, including as Executive Director for a period of time; he also was the Financial Coordinator who was in charge of all accounting responsibilities. As a former Postmaster, Bernie was no stranger to timeliness. He expected nothing less than that from his staff. In addition to working in the trenches with her extensive advocating, Sue was in charge of the company’s newsletter. She formatted the newsletter by hand and sent it to the printer for printing. When the copies were made, FAFS distributed them to the foster parents. Back then, however, the main distribution was through the mail – unlike the convenience of email today.
The Dondiegos held quarterly staff meetings and Bernie would bring breakfast. It was a family oriented organization, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see co-workers children throughout the office.
What was it like working at FAFS with the Dondiegos? “Bernie and Sue were easy and fun to work for,” according to Novelette Williams, a veteran employee of FAFS. She has been a part of the organization since 1986. “They had a laid back and friendly mentality but also expected work to be done in excellence.” In all of their years of being an integral part of FAFS, the Dondiegos were not in the actual office that often. However, they didn’t need desks and file cabinets to do their life changing work that touched lives of foster children throughout New Jersey; in fact, a lot of their effective work was done beyond the four walls of FAFS – in their home and their community.
The Transition of FAFS – Solid and Effective Organizational Structure
Although the function of each entity would grow, much of what FAFS is today was established early on. The Hattie Talley Scholarship Fund was founded in 1983 and continues to be funded by generous donations. The scholarship fund to this day is designed to help young adults who qualify to attend college or vocational school or who aspire to live more independently. This fund, along with other scholarships and grants, continues to be an open door to success for foster children.
There were County Presidents throughout New Jersey that ran the local chapters and worked to strengthen the ties within the foster care community, just as Support Network Chairs do today. Donations of cash, food and toys were happily received and distributed at holiday parties and picnics throughout the state.
The Touch A Life campaign flourished in the 1980s as an educational tool letting the public know about the importance and need for more foster parents and homes in the community. The slogan, “Touch a Life – Experience the Feeling…Become a Foster Parent,” rang throughout the state. It was an exciting time and great exposure for the then NJFPA (now FAFS), with a well-known professional basketball player, Rory Sparrow, as the spokesman. This was the beginning of FAFS utilizing the media to spread the word on the importance of foster care.
Much was accomplished with a handful of staff within the office at the time. Most of the key components to FAFS’ operation existed, and staff were added later on to keep up with the increasing demand for advocacy within the state. While in Trenton, some of the organizational structure also included: the Director, Outreach Coordinator, Training Coordinator and Training Assistant Administrative Secretary, Public Relations Coordinator, Statistics Clerk and Hotline Clerk. Most of these positions grew into larger departments and expanded further once FAFS moved back to Middlesex County 20 years ago.
Support Workers (now known as FAFS Family Advocates) were also added in 1987, while in Trenton. They reported monthly to FAFS and worked in local DYFS (now DCP&P) offices. When FAFS moved to Middlesex County, the Support Workers also made the move to the office and were all in one central location. They would later once again be disbursed throughout the state in different DCP&P offices to eventually return to the FAFS office in 2014.
The Transition of FAFS – Keeping the Dream Alive
As the number of employees grew and FAFS expanded, progression became evident. What was once a smaller family has grown into a larger one and even a larger force for change. With ongoing transformation, FAFS is proud to keep the mission of advocating for New Jersey’s families who help children in foster care. Williams adds, “FAFS has been able to change with the times. We are still a close knit family, which is a good thing, but we have been able to adapt. If FAFS hadn’t changed, we wouldn’t be here after all of these years. We wouldn’t have the longevity we have and wouldn’t be as effective as we are.”