Through the Lambda School Co-op program, students have the unique opportunity to partner with for-good organizations to make a difference in communities across the world. These Co-op projects allow up-and-coming engineers and recent Lambda graduates to gain real-world experience and to provide development services that help achieve positive social and environmental change. Today, we’ll be spotlighting Lambda’s Connect Our Kids Co-op and one stand-out project that is changing lives in the foster care system.
Connect Our Kids is a non-profit organization which aids social workers in finding permanent loving homes for foster children through the use of free, modern technology. Their volunteer-run platform helps social workers and family recruiters identify and engage with extended family members to facilitate home placement, which can be particularly important for those at risk of aging out of the child welfare system.
Connect Our Kids CTO Travis Collins says there are currently over 400,000 foster children in the US foster care system, and according to the National Foster Youth Institute, over 23,000 children will age out of the program each year. This means tens of thousands of young adults will enter into adulthood without a permanent, immediate family.
The process of finding a child’s forever home is time-intensive and largely paper-based, with social workers using a combination of phone calls, manual internet searches, and door-to-door inquiries in the child’s neighborhood to find extended family members.
According to Collins, Connect our Kids began developing multiple technological tools to streamline this process for discovering and engaging extended families starting in early 2018. Their first tool, People Search, aggregates simple contact information into a user-friendly database and is available now for general use.Their second tool, Family Connections, aims to find and engage extended families by simplifying the search process and documenting engagement with those family members. It will officially roll out in mid-2020. Collins says that resource-intensive searches that previously took weeks now take a matter of hours.
“Having contact information is useful and extremely important in the discovery process,” Collins explained. “Our technology is intended to scale up existing practices to ensure that every foster child can receive this life-changing benefit.”
To help propel the organization’s technological goals, including building mobile versions of their two online tools and a new dashboard to display their impact metrics, Collins turned to Lambda School.
“I learned about Lambda through the weekly Fast Forward newsletter. I was intrigued by the opportunity to offer students real-world projects, and to receive the benefit of additional free help,” he said.
Collins connected with Jessica Wilkinson, Social Impact Manager from Lambda, to discuss a partnership. Wilkinson coordinated multiple cohorts of students to work with Collins on a mobile version of the Family Connections and People Search tools and an impact dashboard.
“I was initially drawn to partnering with [Collins] because of the great mission of his org – connecting kids with their forever families. I felt that was something Lambda students could potentially connect with and be excited about using their skills to further the mission,” Wilkinson said. “He is a great partner not only for his passion around the mission, but for his ability and willingness to provide technical mentorship to the team.”
Lambda graduate Tristan Linehan joined the Connect Our Kids project as a way to gain professional experience and build his portfolio while job seeking.
“After meeting foster children throughout my life, I found most had a tough time growing up in the system… often graduating foster care to juvenile hall and on and on including continual poverty and trauma,” Linehan said. “If I could volunteer my time and the new skills Lambda so generously bestowed upon me to help even one child mitigate that potential path, that would be a huge win.”
Linehan and teammate Aquila Strother built the first version of the mobile app itself in a matter of weeks.
“We joined the CTO and CEO of Connect Our Kids [and their] engineering teams in weekly development meetings. It was quite insightful and honestly challenging at times,” Linehan said. “I’m not sure of any other coding school offers this level of experience to its students and job seeking graduates.”
Linehan later worked to develop other features like a dashboard for social workers to both organize their caseload and find potential family members. These features would allow social workers to collect data on their mobile devices in the field and later add these back into a desktop case management interface.
To prepare them to provide value on the job from day one, Lambda teams receive training on how to work on a cross-functional product team. They conduct technical, competitive and user research, and gain experience managing client expectations while refining their professional communication skills. Linehan says it would likely take years to be exposed to that type of corporate planning and decision making in the industry.
Throughout the project, Collins says he met weekly with the Lambda teams to talk through various use cases, help them gain access to necessary systems, provide feedback, discuss lessons learned, and hear student recommendations. According to Collins, the Lambda team worked as an autonomous unit responsible for their own schedules and planning, while communicating to give him visibility on progress.
“The Lambda student teams have greatly accelerated the pace at which we can produce new technology,” Collins said. “Without volunteers like the Lambda team members, Connect Our Kids would simply not have a mobile app. There’s just no way we could afford it.”
Currently, Lambda students have nearly completed several phases of the app that helps social workers while there are in the field, including search tools and information they can access when they return to their desk. The app will be available for both Android and Apple devices.
Another Lambda team is currently working on an Impact Dashboard that allows social workers to view their impact in terms of children served, number of connections discovered, and outcomes on a per-user basis.
“The Impact dashboard [will] be a standalone web app backed by a server-less set of components,” he said. “The data it will retrieve will be user events that have occurred in our other products. The purpose is to show a user’s effectiveness overtime – what impact they have made on the world through our services.”
Ultimately, this will help increase motivation among volunteers and allow Connect Our Kids to show the impact of their work and raise additional funds, which Collins says will be invaluable for years to come and would not be possible without the Lambda team.
“If we provided access to every social worker that has requested access, there would be about 400 users for the tools created by the Lambda School. That would serve about 40,000 foster children,” Collins said. “There are over 30,000 social workers – and we believe a large portion of them will eventually benefit from these free tools.
Collins believes his biggest challenge so far is that Lambda students have been “hired away,” although he recognizes this is the ultimate goal for both Lambda and the organization. Regardless, Collins believes the work performed by the Lambda students will have a huge impact now and well into the future. You can learn more about Connect Our Kids here.
Want more info on Co-op projects? We’ll be sharing a new project every month, so be sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram to learn more about the ways Lambda School students are using tech to change the world. Interested in becoming a co-op partner? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.