Skip header content and main navigation Binghamton University, State University of New York - Harpur

A visit from Barry Chaffkin

By Leah Ferentinos

Harpur College alumnus Barry Chaffkin ’86, CEO and co-founder of the children’s charity Fostering Change for Children returned to his alma mater this fall to share his success story in social entrepreneurship.

Chaffkin, an English and rhetoric graduate, hosted a “Lunch and Learn” student/alumni-networking event sponsored by the Harpur Edge. He focused his discussion with students on career advice and how to create meaning in their lives.

“My experience in life has shown me that you’re more likely to succeed if you’re doing something that you really care about,” he said. “If you find something that you’re passionate about, you can really make a difference in the world.”

And for 25 years, Chaffkin’s done just that — working as a social worker for more than a decade and a half before starting his own non-profit. His organization’s signature program, Children’s Corps, matches new child welfare workers with foster-care agencies in New York City through an innovative selection process designed specifically to increase caseworker retention rates.

“Foster-care caseworkers quitting the field is a real issue,” he said. “Imagine you’re that kid – opening up to someone, only to see them leave soon thereafter — starting over isn’t easy, especially for children.”

That’s where “Children’s Corps” comes in. The program pre-screens applicants for character traits like resiliency, empathy and adaptability — all research-proven criteria to excel in the field of social work.

“With this work, what’s on the surface is never the whole story,” Chaffkin said. “You always have to look beneath the surface to see what’s really going on. So we need social workers who are non-judgmental in order to do the best work we can.”

“I want them to treat every person as a person, and not a label,” he said.

In addition to this new selection process, Children’s Corps also trains incoming child welfare workers before entering the workplace and provides them with extra support along the way. As a result, Chaffkin’s program has maintained an 88 percent one-year “stay rate,” compared to 60 percent for the rest of New York City.

Thus far the program has placed almost 100 caseworkers in foster-care agencies throughout the city, potentially impacting thousands of kids. In particular, some of these workers help children who have otherwise aged out of the system get adopted.

But Chaffkin, who also serves as an adjunct lecturer at the Columbia University School of Social Work, said the full extent to which his organization helps improve social welfare couldn’t be easily measured.

“The adage is that you should be able to sum up everything you do in an ‘elevator speech,’” he said. “But with me, you’ll have to take the stairs. It’s complex; many of the long-term results of our work with these kids you won’t see until years down the line.”

Chaffkin used this as a metaphor to help students understand the real world after college.

“Sometimes it takes years to become really good at what you do,” he said. “But anything that’s really worthwhile in life takes time.”

He can relate. It took time to find the career path that was right for him, but it was worth waiting for, Chaffkin said. In 2005, he was named the Adoption Activist of the Year by the North American Council on Adoptable Children. Today his organization is creating a framework that could someday be utilized nationwide.

“I really don’t feel like I go to work because I love what I do,” he said.

Chaffkin’s advice to help students achieve similar feats starts with networking.

“Building relationships has been the key to everything that I’ve ever done,” he said. “Especially with fundraising. Networking and staying in touch with people can serve you well down the road.”

He means that literally; many of the friendships he made at Binghamton have stayed with him for nearly three decades. And some of his old fraternity brothers even wound up donating to his non-profit, too.

“Binghamton has had a lasting impact on my life,” Chaffkin said. “Getting a liberal arts education [from Harpur College] allows you to do anything. The skills I learned here weren’t just English and Math, but also more practical ones with real world application, like decision making, persuasive arguments, problem solving…the works.”

So he advised current students to take advantage of every opportunity they could, both inside and outside the classroom.

“If you can get internships, externships — it’s invaluable,” he said. “And the fact that Harpur is investing in the alumni network with programs like Harpur Edge is amazing. These students now have my business card for life.”

Freshman biology major Rachel Zielinski, who was in attendance for the event, agreed.

“It’s really individualized attention from alumni,” she said. “Going to events like this is exactly what he recommended about networking, too.”

Junior math major Sean Moran echoed the sentiment.

“He’ll remember all of our names now,” Moran said. “Having that connection could really help us down the line, regardless of whether we end up working with him.”

Chaffkin concluded by urging students to reach out to him anytime, citing the countless alumni like him who are equally eager to help students with their post-graduation plans.

“Sometimes the defining moments in life are when you have no idea what you’re going to do next,” Chaffkin said.

“That’s why I’m here. How can hearing my story help with yours?”

Connect with Binghamton:
Twitter icon links to Binghamton University's Twitter page YouTube icon links to Binghamton University's YouTube page Facebook icon links to Binghamton University's Facebook page Instagram

Last Updated: 3/1/17