Actress and musician Jen Lilley wears many hats. When the mother of three is not in front of the camera or in the studio, Lilley is focused on a cause near and dear to her heart – being a foster care advocate.
We recently had the pleasure of catching up with Lilley, who is a parent of two sons via foster care, about fostering, her #VoicesThatGive contest, new album, latest Hallmark movie, creating a village and support system for those in the foster care system, and more.
What initially drew you to fostering?
JL: So many things. I think the door and my heart was open to foster care because growing up my parents were sort of informal foster parents. My dad was a judge; my mom was director of a women and children’s charity. Each state has different laws, but because of that in Virginia – and you want to remain unbiased as a foster parent – they really felt that that put them in a position of looking like they had bias and maybe it wouldn’t really be in the child’s best interest. But, because they have a heart for people, we often kind of informally fostered teens or even families that just needed help transitioning in their life. That just implanted a deep seed of empathy.
I became a child advocate in 2011 just because I really did not know the depths and level of child abuse that goes on in our country. Until recently, people really didn’t want to talk about it. Trafficking has only in the last five years gotten some momentum, I feel, and so I joined that initiative and cause to lend my voice to that. Then I became a Special Friend, which is kind of like a Big Brothers Big Sisters mentorship program at Childhelp. Childhelp is one of the largest and definitely the longest running anti child abuse and prevention charities here in the United States. One of my Special Friends, one of my mentees, my husband, and I just really fell in love with. Foster care was a conversation I’ve had with my husband before. But, I find with any foster care couple, there’s one person that’s go, go, go and one person that is on the brakes, and is waiting it out.
This little girl was facing reunification, which means going back to the birth family, and that is the goal of foster care. However, it’s not always the best interest of the child and when a child lives at the Childhelp Village, it means that they’re one of the cases that were in the papers. The Gabriel Fernandezes – these are the children who live in the Village. They need 24/7, 365 therapy all day long in order to heal and progress. Reunification in a child’s case like that is not a good idea and she was facing reunification with her mom, her abuser. My husband and I were like, not on our watch. So we became licensed foster parents and while we unfortunately were not allowed to foster her and adopt her, I do stay in touch with her, which is awesome. She’s doing really well. I just spoke to her a few days ago, actually. We got our son, Kayden, who was four-months-old, and now he’s four-years-old, and he’s adopted – thank God. We are in the process of adopting his half brother who we’ve been fostering since he was also four-months and is two now.
You’ve partnered with Project Orphans. Why was it an organization that you wanted to champion?
JL: I really want to champion any charity that is putting their money where their mouth is. I tell my followers and my fans all the time whenever you pick a charity you need to go to www.charitynavigator.org, and you need to be loud and a squeaky wheel, and you need to say show me your finances. A lot of people, I think, have good hearts and they donate to causes and then they don’t even know that it’s a shell corporation collecting their money. You really need to make sure that programs are doing what they say and Project Orphans is doing that.
I actually found the [Project Orphans] Co-Founder Brittany Rae Stokes, my partner in crime now – love her – I found her through Instagram. I found her through #FosterLove because foster care is a very lonely road and you can empathize, but you can’t really understand how lonely and emotional and taxing it is until you are in it. I found Brittany because I was at my wits’ end and needed to create a community of mamas that are like-minded. It said in her bio: “I’m the founder of Project Orphans.” I looked them up, went down their rabbit hole, I found them to be incredible. Then I met with Brittany for coffee because I was filming two weeks later in her area, in Oklahoma. I’ve never been there in my life and the one day I was available was the same day she was available. We had brunch and just sat and cried and talked and I found out that she’s a foster and adoptive mom in Oklahoma and she has the same passion and feel and heart for our children and for our broken system. We actually have a similar vision, which is to build a neighborhood here in the United States, to build homes that are filled with loving parents. That goes for married parents, some people are single parents, and they can do foster care, and they’re equipped for that. I think those people are incredible. So it’s basically to have a family unit of loving parents who are committed to loving the child in their care, and also the birth family that they came from – because foster care is a cycle of abuse.
Girls who have gone through foster care have children who end up in foster care. They’re 600 times more likely than the average population to have children who end up in foster care. So until you really get down to the root of the issue and fill that gap with love, you’re never going to solve it. That’s the same for any issue. That’s the same for the issue we’re facing right now in our country. Unless we break that cycle of abuse and fill it with love and transparencies, there will never be change. So we believe that change starts in the family unit and we want to build a neighborhood. That is what 100 percent of profits from my music will always go towards. That’s what #VoicesThatGive is for. It’s a global competition to give artists of all genres and experience levels the opportunity to launch their career, while also being a voice that gives, using your platform wisely.
This is an opportunity to launch your career, win $10,000 cash, which is hugely hopeful right now when so many people are unemployed or furloughed. But, also by participating, you’re giving back to our most vulnerable population and children here in the United States. There’s an overwhelming number of them and they are the voiceless. It’s just a positive way to rally hope when our country is hurting in so many ways. I’m excited that even though it’s all happening at what looks like a bleak situation, or maybe you don’t want to say hey, vote for me, vote for me as an artist, it is still the right time to share your talent because it raises money for vulnerable children who have found themselves to be at the short end of the stick of child abuse and neglect, unimaginable child abuse and neglect. And the overwhelming majority actually is minority, which is also a problem.
It’s a great way to spread hope and I think feeling. The way it works is everybody’s first vote is free. But then we are encouraging people to donate $1. So for $1, you can donate one extra vote. Now, if you want to be generous, – and again, 100 percent of the profit from the voting round will be going toward building this neighborhood – if you donate $10, your contestant gets 10 votes. And then the person who donated gets my album, that’s how I’m tying in my music. If you support an artist, if you support children, I give you my album. If they donate $25 for 25 votes for the contest, they get my autographed album, and the kids get the profit. If they donate $100 or more, they get my autographed album, their contestant gets 100 votes or more, whatever dollar for dollar match, and a t-shirt. The t-shirts from my store say: “I just want to listen to music and change the world.” All the products that are on my website (www.jenlilley.com and jenlilleymusic.com), every single product 100 percent of the profit goes towards the cause. If people don’t want to vote, they can also support that way. I have coffee mugs that I’m actually drinking coffee from right now. It’s awesome. They say: “I just want to drink coffee and change the world.” I have journals that say: “I just want to journal and change the world.” The point is, we can be the change that we wish to see in the world and I really have hope for that, so much hope for that. I think it’s a tough time, but I think it’s also a time that people want to help and this is a good way to support that.
Could you speak a bit about your album?
JL: I started working on it four years ago, with the idea that 100 percent of my profits would go towards helping children. They’re all original songs. It took two years to write and record. I have incredible people involved – Diane Warren, legendary songwriter, Lauren Christy, and Adrian Gurvitz is my producer. He wrote The Bodyguard. It’s world class writers; Adele’s musicians flew in to do the sessions. It’s all real; there’s not a single note auto-tuned. Rosie Danvers orchestra and strings was on it.
It’s a huge collaborative effort and what I love about the timing of it all, I put off the release because I wanted to raise money for children, and had to come up with a game plan to do that. But, at the same time, I was facing incredible stress with my son Kayden’s adoption. That was scary. He would absolutely be dead right now had we not adopted him. When your case faces adoption, it’s generally a life or death situation. So I was dealing with that and then I found myself pregnant. There’s a quote from Mother Teresa who I really take everything that she said to heart. She said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” I really take that to heart, and I found myself pregnant and the adoption case, and then my son, my middle son, came to us at the same time. It was a lot going on and I really felt like how am I going to help other people’s children, and really do this with excellence, and do it the right way, because the last thing we need is a broken system. We’ve got to do something that works, and the only way to do that is through careful planning, and by making sure that your own family is in order so that you can actually be the change you wish to see in the world.
What I love about the timing of all of it, that I’ve been thinking about, especially this past week, is that it’s a 60s style album. I don’t know of a time in history that there have been more parallels to what exactly was going on in the 60s. We need music that’s empowering. We need music that is uplifting and relatable and explores heartache, and then the triumph that you can face on the other side. That’s what we found in 60s music.
The album is out right now, only available in hard copy because I want 100 percent of my profit to go toward building this village. And I will release it digitally later, but right now my focus is collecting the most amount of money to make this neighborhood happen.
What stage is the neighborhood in and when will it be completed?
JL: We’ve been planning it. My hope is as soon as possible. We have plans to build it in Oklahoma, because that’s where Brittany is and it’s cheaper there. A million dollars in LA… you can buy one home. A million dollars in Oklahoma can build at least five amazing homes. We’ve done the budget and that is when you’re looking at land that has never been plumbed, there’s no electricity, there’s no plumbing, there’s no roads. You’re looking at conservatively $200,000, if you’re just looking at a chunk of land. If you’re looking at a neighborhood that’s maybe just run down and you need to plow it down to the foundation and rebuild, for $100,000 you might be able to build ten homes. On unplumbed land, about $200,000 each. We want to build a community center and a therapy center on grounds. The plan is to do it as quickly as possible. Brittany is currently getting her license in social work, because that is a law in Oklahoma. The law in Oklahoma is that if you’re going to be the executive director, you have to have a license in that. Her and I are both committed to being the executive directors, because we want to make sure that this is handled by somebody that has their heart in the right place and it doesn’t get mishandled.
May is Foster Care Awareness Month. How do you and your family celebrate?
JL: By just being loud. I have a podcast called Fostering Hope and it’s to equip and inform and inspire people to either get involved as foster parents, and really dismantle any misconceptions they have. For example, my husband, like 51 percent of surveyed Americans, used to believe that children in the foster care system are juvenile delinquents. That’s not the case. So, it’s to educate and then also to just inspire and encourage people that are already deep in the trenches of foster care to keep going, because the burnout rate for foster parents is 50 percent. What you have is the good foster parents not being able to take on the emotional test, and so they just burn out, they give up, they just surrender because this is never going to change. And then the ones that have been staying in the foster care fight are the ones that are doing it for the money. They’re the horrible ones. I think the estimate, based on the National Foster Care Institute, is 70 percent of foster parents are bad. My goal is to spread awareness, empower people that have considered fostering to foster, and to stay in the fight. You stay in the fight by feeling like you’re heard.
Besides #VoicesThatGive and your album, are you working on any projects at the moment?
JL: I wrote a story, which is the full outline for a Hallmark movie called A Paris Proposal. I just found out recently that has been green-light. I created the story, I’ll be producing it and starring in it. Right now we’re just trying to figure out the logistics of the COVID testing, how do we do this safely with more than 10 people, how do we travel, where do we film it? So, it’s in the works.
Have you ever been to the Hamptons?
JL: No, I haven’t – and I really, really want to. I think that’d be like the best plan after 2020 passes.
For more information about Jen Lilley, visit www.jenlilley.com and jenlilleymusic.com. Voting for #VoicesThatGive ends on July 11. To cast a vote, visit orbiiit.com.