AOK Frequently Asked Questions

AOK is the family we choose. We support the kids who come to us as if they were our own. And just like we all would for our own kids, we will stop at nothing to make sure they have the love, encouragement, support and resources they need to be successful, happy, caring and creative adults who are invested in their communities and active citizens who make a positive difference in the world.

The AOK family is incredibly diverse, bringing together people of different generations, races, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. The kids come to the table because they need the support that AOK provides. Adults join the AOK family because they see the brilliance inside our kids and want to help unleash their potential. And everyone in the AOK family is here because AOK also satisfies the profound yearning for stronger, more diverse, trusting relationships and communities that we all feel. We bring people of all ages and backgrounds to our table to support each other, to forge deep and trusting connections, and to create a mutually supportive community. This community in turn plays a pivotal role in supporting the efforts of AOK kids to reach their full potential.

Our success depends on building trusting relationships with every kid that comes to us. How do we do that? We listen to them and we believe them, accept them where they are, take them seriously, stick with them through thick and thin, love and support them no matter what, and make sure they have whatever they need to reach their potential. And though we also have a deep awareness that every kid is different—and as a result our experience, interactions, trajectory and relationship with every kid is unique—we also know that every kid has a diamond inside, and with the proper love and support, that diamond can shine a unique, dazzling light on the world. Over time, we convince kids that we believe this, and eventually, they believe it too. Then? Just get out of the way!

AOK finds its roots in a number of places. First, Kathy is one of 9 kids, so she always had a house full of kids growing up. David’s theory is that with Thursday Night Dinner and AOK, she’s just trying to replicate her childhood table. Second, Kathy was a single mom when her son Santiago was little. She created a community of other single moms, and they all took turns looking after each other’s kids and cooking meals. As a result, as a result, Santi’s childhood was full of other kids, even if he was an only child. Finally, Santi inherited the social justice gene from his mom, and from middle school on has been bringing friends home who need support of some kind or another. So really, the Simpson-Fletcher household has always been full of young people, who are encouraged to reach for the stars. When they all started getting into college and had no way to pay for it, Kathy and David decided to form an organization to better support these young people as they pursue their dreams. That’s how AOK was born.

Once kids join the AOK family, we provide a wide range of support, based on their individual needs. The support we provide generally falls into one or more of the following buckets:

  • Life Support. Just like we all do for our own kids, we provide the resources that our growing community of kids needs to negotiate every-day life, including food, clothing, phones, chargers, phone plans, health insurance, computers, bikes, art supplies, mentoring, allowance, a safe place to do and get help with homework, do laundry, get internet service and get help applying for college, vocational programs, jobs and internships. Not to mention things you just can’t put a price tag on, including love, joy, trust, advice, high expectations, laughter and community.
  • Education Support. When our kids go off to college, participate in vocational programs or take classes to help them reach their potential, we provide everything they need to focus on learning and succeed, including helping them find the educational path that best meets their needs, helping them through the application process, helping them negotiate the financial aid process, covering gaps in tuition, providing allowance and phone plans, paying for trips home during breaks, and making sure they have the supplies they need. We are developing an Education Fund that will make it possible to meet these expenses and allow a growing number of AOK kids pursue their educational dreams without financial stress.
  • Financial Literacy and Wealth Building. Without strong financial habits, many of our kids don’t know how to handle money. We provide financial literacy and wealth-building education and guidance to our kids designed to develop healthy financial habits and incentivize our young people to start saving and get on the road to financial independence.
  • AOK Summer Vacation. Many of our kids have never been on vacation. Over the years, we always bring a few kids with us on vacation. In the summer of 2017 we will bring all our kids to Cape Cod for a week of fun in the sun.
  • Holiday Joy. Every year we encounter kids who’ve never had a present to open during the holiday season. Continuing a tradition we initiated several years ago, we ensure that all our kids have specially selected and wrapped presents to open during the holiday season.

Currently, we support about 25 kids. 5 kids live with us; 6 are away at 4-year colleges; and we provide a wide range of support for an additional 14 kids or so. New kids come to us practically every week, so by the time you read this, the numbers will have grown.

We don’t. At least not by ourselves. Over the years we have become absolutely shameless in asking our friends, family and colleagues for help. We depend on the growing community of adults who’ve joined our table to help make sure all the needs of the kids are met—frankly there’s no other way we could do it. And besides, in doing so we’ve created a marvelous community of all ages and backgrounds in which everyone holds each other up and challenges ourselves and each other to be a better version of ourselves.

That depends on your community of support. The more adults you have who approach supporting the kids in the same way—emphasizing the importance of trusting, deep relationships and helping kids articulate and realize their dreams—the more kids you can support.

Not typically. One of the results of new kids coming to us through word of mouth, is that the kids themselves provide an important layer of vetting. The kids are very protective of us so are very careful who they invite over. They only invite kids who are ready for the challenges we provide: to share their dreams, to work toward them, to take responsibility for themselves, to take care of others. That said, most of our kids have experienced some type of trauma due to being raised in difficult circumstances. This often manifests in trust issues. These kids have had way too much experience with adults that don’t show up for them. So that’s our primary job: loving them no matter what. Eventually, if you do so over time, the walls will come down. For more severe issues, we have counselors and youth services organizations we can refer young people to.

No. We go out of our way to present ourselves as ‘extra’ family, or ‘back-up’ family. We never make any claim to replacing parents in any way. We know that parents love their children and want the best for them. All of the parents we have contact with are grateful that we see the potential in their children and are willing to provide support that they cannot. Some of our kids don’t have contact with their parents or have been raised in the foster care system.

Yes. Currently 5 kids live with us. Kids come to live with us if we have room and if they have nowhere to go or are living in unsafe conditions. If we don’t have room, we find housing for them with someone in the larger AOK community.

Actually, they find us. And it all started with our son Santiago. Starting when he was in middle school, he’d invite friends home who needed a hand in some way. Some didn’t have enough food, or clothes that fit, or needed help with homework, or a shoulder to cry on. Whatever it was they needed, we helped them get it. And once they learned that they could trust us, that we would be there for them no matter what, then they would in turn bring friends who needed support. And kids have been coming to us ever since.

Our kids range from 16-23, typically.

TND is a diverse, weekly dinner at Kathy and David’s house with an open invitation to all AOK kids, the adults in the AOK family and the place where new people of all ages are introduced to AOK. It provides a powerful dose of AOK love and joy. It is a boisterous gathering of AOK family members, anywhere from 15-30 people of all ages and backgrounds. The love around the table is palpable and the home-cooked food is delicious and plentiful. Everyone is present (no phones at the table) and everyone is welcoming to the new faces around the table.

Thursday Night Dinners at AOK begin with a toast of welcome and include going around the table, so everyone has a chance to be the center of attention. Cell phones are banned. For birthdays, we offer good wishes and something we really love about the birthday person. For new people, we say something new about ourselves, or share something we are grateful for, and add a wish we have for the new person. In this way, conversation shifts from informal twosomes to talking to the whole table (great practice for kids and adults alike, who all live in a world where social interaction seems ever more virtual). After dinner, the party moves to another room, where kids and adults play guitar and sing, read poems and share stories. Typically, the evening wraps up by 9:30.

There are a number of ways to find kids to get your very own TND started.

  • School counselors
  • Faith Communities
  • Boys and girls’ clubs
  • Big Brother/Sister
  • Community Centers

Ideally, there’s someone you know in one of these places who can help. Make it clear that you want to start a community of young people who need support of some kind and that you’d like to start by developing a relationship with one such young person.

No. Different people and families have different levels of capacity to create TND communities. As long as you nurture mind and spirit of everyone at the table, and as long as you love the kids at the table as if they were your own, then you have created your own Thursday Night Dinner. It doesn’t have to look just like ours.

One. That’s it. And if you show that young person that you are trustworthy, that you will love them no matter what, that you trust and believe in them, and if you let it be known that you’re interested in helping other young people, they will invite their friends who need a hand and a hug. And then they will invite their friends, and so on and so on. There’s no rush. Better to start out with one or a few kids in order to figure out how much you can handle, how much you’re ready for.

This will vary depending on location and menu. We typically serve a green salad, rice, a vegetable and chicken, some sort of desert and lemonade or some other non-alcoholic drink. The cost comes to about $4-5/person. Add more if you serve alcohol—wine, beer—to the adults at the table.

Absolutely! It really does take a village. And if rotating TND among two or three households makes it a doable reality that happens every week, then go for it! The key is consistency—the kids have to be able to count on you over time to keep your end of the bargain.

Great idea! Even better if you can convince a restaurant owner—or even two or three!—to underwrite the cost of the meal. As long as the dinner is consistent, and the kids feel relaxed and they are safe, the locale doesn’t matter.

If you have kids, then you know the answer to this question: whatever it takes for the kids to have the love, support and resources they need to reach their dreams. TND is really only the tip of the iceberg. In the here and now, it means making sure they have enough to eat every day, not just Thursdays. It means making sure they have clothes that fit and phones, computers and bikes that work. It means making sure they have a tux or dress for prom and a suit for interviews. It means helping with college, intern and job applications, making sure their resumes are strong, taking them on school visits and helping them go to art camp and pay for school trips. It means helping them get their IDs, their passports and their driver’s licenses. It means giving them advice, offering a shoulder to cry on and giving them hugs. It means helping them see their true potential, helping them believe that they deserve to dream big, and supporting them as they articulate their dreams and work at making them come true. It means loving them like they were your own kids.

You better, because trying to do this alone is a sure-fire recipe for burn-out. Kathy was a single mom when Santiago was little, and she doesn’t know what she would have done if it wasn’t for her community of single moms taking turns looking after kids and feeding them. Finding ways to share the costs—in money and in time—is essential to succeeding. At our house other adults bring dessert, provide moral (and occasional material) support, offer a shoulder to cry on – or guidance in a possible career path or artistic pursuit. Don’t be shy. Mine your personal and professional networks. People want to help, people are good. They want connection, they want to use the fruits of their labor in responsive and positive ways. You just have to ask. Believe us, they’ll thank you!

Costs will vary according to where you live. Count on some variation of a variety of expenses, including: phones and phone service (you can add a kid to your plan along with insurance and a payment plan for a new phone for about $30/month), phone chargers (about $15), computers ($3-500), bikes ($3-500), maintenance of all these, clothing ($300/year), birthdays and holiday gifts ($3-500/year), plus periodic miscellaneous expenses like the cost of IDs and drivers licenses, clothes for prom and graduation, school trips, etc.

If the kid is about to go to college, you’ll need to factor in application fees ($75-100 each), visits to colleges (about $300/visit), etc. And when the kid goes to college, there is tuition, fees, books, housing, and school and dorm supplies ($25-30,000/year for in-state tuition at a public university, some of which will be covered through FAFSA, school-based grants and scholarships and other sources of funding), plus the cost of getting back and forth to school.

Not all kids will need all these things. And we want to again stress that it’s not just up to you to cover them. It’s critical to develop a network of friends and colleagues you can turn to for help in sustaining the cost of supporting the kids. It can be financial and material support—many people have donated old phones, computers, bikes, clothes, etc. to us. The point is, it’s crucial to develop a community of support so you can sustain this work over the long run.

Average monthly expenses per kid here in DC comes to about $400/kid, which includes. This includes food, clothing, allowance, phone service, a share of the cost of utilities and wiggle room for miscellaneous expenses. If s/he needs health insurance, add another $4-500/month.

We recommend taking a number of steps to make sure everyone involved is protected.

  • Require that all adults who come in contact with youth undergo background checks.
  • Require that parents or guardians of minors sign permission slips and releases before allowing minors to participate in activities at your home.
  • Require that all youth 18 or over sign releases before being allowed to participate in activities at your home.

Absolutely. We will talk with you to establish what your particular circumstances are so we can provide assistance that makes sense for you. We will facilitate your attendance at one of our TNDs so you can see how ours works and what the spirit is. We will help you get everything set up. We will provide guidance on finding kids and any other aspect of establishing a strong TND. We will provide materials, recipes, coaching, trouble-shooting and information about funding sources for the full range of possible expenses.

Before you can call it Thursday Night Dinner, you’ll have to complete a process in which we help you get up to speed and establish a system of support for kids that goes beyond dinner one night a week. Once we feel confident that you have put into practice the spirit and love that characterizes our approach, we will enter an agreement for a prescribed period of time in which the responsibilities of all parties are clearly articulated and which is designed to ensure the kids in your location are supported with a strongly-rooted AOK approach. Once we all sign that agreement, we’ll add you to our official list of Thursday Night Dinners. We’ll review your progress periodically and provide any support you need under the stipulations of the agreement. If for whatever reason you aren’t able to continue maintaining fealty to the AOK approach, you won’t be able to continue using the name Thursday Night Dinner.

Of course. But be warned though: you serve it once and people will complain if you don’t serve it

every single week! Here it is:

All Our Kids Spicy Chicken

  • 8 to 10 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons dried coriander
  • 2 tablespoons McCormick’s Perfect Pinch rotisserie chicken seasoning
  • I bulb garlic, cleaned and broken apart (not peeled)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • In a shallow bowl combine all dry ingredients.
  • Toss the garlic bulbs in olive oil and place in bottom of 9 x 13 pan; place chicken on top.
  • Brush chicken with olive oil, shake off any excess and roll in spices.
  • Cook uncovered at 400 degrees for an hour or until well-browned.
  • Enjoy!
  • (Plan on two thighs per serving. We count how many people are coming and we add four pieces – even if there’s extra left over, it’ll be gone by the end of the night.)