Former foster youth, 'Angel in Adoption' pioneers magazine
Editor's note: Monday Profiles are published on the first Monday of each month.
WATSONTOWN - Chris Chmielewski doesn't understand how his life got to this point.
The 34-year-old Mount Carmel native - with a self-described Kermit the Frog voice and a forever age 15 way of looking at the world - is the owner, editor and creator of the only monthly foster care magazine in the country.
And tomorrow, he's being honored by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) as an Angel in Adoption in Washington, D.C.
"It's been a wild ride. I don't know why. None of this makes sense," Chmielewski said last week in an interview with The News-Item.
"I have become like an example and a role model," he said. "It's been a weird thing that happened. I'm in a position where I just wanted to cover it (foster care), but I became an advocate by circumstance. I'm an advocate with a platform. I didn't expect this to happen. I didn't expect people to want my opinion."
Chmielewski, a former foster youth himself, has positioned Foster Focus through his hard work as a top resource for foster care news and information in the nation, according to a media release from CCAI.
The Angels in Adoption program is CCAI's signature public awareness campaign and provides an opportunity for members of the U.S. Congress to honor the good work for their constituents who have enriched the lives of foster children and orphans in the United States and abroad.
He works from a cramped office on the second floor of his Watsontown house, his walls filled with Arizona Cardinal memorabilia and pictures of President John F. Kennedy.
Earlier last week, Chmielewski planned on barely getting any sleep, staying up until 4 a.m. to finish editing the magazine then driving to New York City in the morning to review a documentary for the next issue.
Former foster youth
Chmielewski entered foster care when he was 15 and aged out when he reached 19. During those four years, he went to several different schools: Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School, Mount Carmel Area, Shikellamy, Milton Area and Warrior Run.
He never graduated. In his last year of high school, the Warrior Run administrators weren't able to prove he lived in the school district and he was kicked out of school.
"It was embarrassing. I was a good student," he said.
He got his GED in 1999 and enrolled in college, but he had a difficult time.
"I figured out how to eat for a dollar a day. I would buy a quarter bag of chips and a soda. That's how I ate for awhile. I didn't understand how to pay bills," he said.
There just wasn't any information out there to help teens in his position transition from a life of foster care and jumping around place to place to adulthood, he said.
With a passion for writing, Chmielewski decided to be that informational provider, and eventually developed the monthly foster care magazine.
The target audience for the magazine is anyone who is involved in foster care, which is a big net, he said.
He also doesn't work with a staff; his writers are mostly contributors. He also covers different adoption trials and cases in the government.
The first issue dropped May 2011, and he now has subscribers across the globe, from all 50 states, India, Canada and New Zealand.
Hard work pays off
The award ceremony will be held tomorrow, and a gala will be held Wednesday.
"The Angels in Adoption program is unlike any other program in the nation's capital," said Kathleen Strottman, Kathleen Strottman, CCAI executive director.
Because of the program, more than 2,000 people have come to Washington to share their adoption experience and left with renewed excitement of what adoption makes possible, she said.
"I learned one simple lesson from my time on Capitol Hill: knowledge is power. Angels in Adoption is mean to give members of Congress the knowledge they need to use the power they have toward making the dream of a family a reality for every child," she said.
In addition to more than 140 people from around the country being honored along with Chmielewski, several "National Angels" will be recognized at the gala for their dedication and commitment nationally and internationally to child welfare on a grand scale. This year's honorees are Korie and Willie Robertson of A&E's reality show Duck Dynasty and actress, director and producer Deborra-Lee Furness Jackman.
Former National Angels include First Lady Laura Bush, Patti LaBelle, Jane Seymour, Muhammad Ali, the late Dave Thomas, Steven Curtis Chapman, Bruce Willis, Alonzo Mourning, Rhea Perlman and Kristin Chenoweth.
The CCAI, created in 2001, is a 501(c)3 nonpartisan organization dedicated to raising awareness about the tens of thousands of orphans and foster children in the nation and the millions of orphans around the world in need of permanent, safe and loving homes through adoption.
The organization does not received any government funding, relying only on the support of foundations, corporations and individuals.
To parents considering foster care, he said, "Do it."
"Have the heart to take a kid who is beaten up in life, and given them someone to come back to. Be a phone call. Be that phone call so that they have someone when they don't understand how to do their laundry or pay the rent. You're going to change a kid's life by just being there."
Through everything, he has become the provider of information he wished he has when he was growing up.
For example, "If they (kids in foster care) want to know how to get their birth certificate, I might not know how, but I know people who do," he said. "The people who have the information are like the Wizard of Oz; they're behind the curtain. I want to be out in the open."
He's also there to tell them the truth.
"This is temporary, but prepare; you're going to age out," he said. "You have work your a-- off, because no one will give you anything."
Even though he's being recognized, Chmielewski is humble.
"I don't consider myself a pioneer, but if I have any impact, it's cool to see these kids no longer struggling," he said.
The next issue of Foster Focus will be available at the end of this month for subscribers.
Name: Chris Chmielewski
Occupation: Founder, owner and editor of Foster Focus magazine
Wife: Trisha, married 10 years
Kids: Noah, 10; Layla, 9; Eva, 6
Hobbies: Basketball, biking, films
Other: Member of the National Board for Foster Care of Alumni of America, One Simple Wish in New Jersey and Together We Rise in California.