To explain the concept of Positive Deviance, let me tell you a story. In the 1990’s, a man named Jerry Sternin went to Vietnam as part of the Save the Children group in order to solve the problem of malnutrition in the country’s small and very poor villages. The Vietnamese government gave the group just six months to get results. Facing such an intimidating time frame, Jerry and his team got started by talking with the mothers in four different villages. They asked the women in each village if there were any children under age three who came from poor families, but were well nourished. In each village, the answer was yes.

After talking with the mothers of the healthier children, they discovered that these mothers went against custom and mixed tiny crabs, shrimp and sweet potato greens into their children’s food, supplementing the traditional fare with extra vitamins and protein. In addition, they found these mothers fed their children when they got diarrhea, which was in opposition to the conventional wisdom that children with diarrhea should not be fed. Finally, these busy mothers made the time to ensure that their children were given several small meals throughout the day, which most of the other busy mothers did not do. Upon discovering these differences, the mothers of the malnourished children soon began imitating the behavior of the mothers of the healthier children – the “positive deviants.”

Eventually the work was expanded to 14 villages, and Jerry found that there were positive deviants in every village who had come up with unique solutions that varied with the resources at hand. These mothers were all willing to share their practices with the other mothers and within two years of initiating this Positive Deviance process, the malnutrition level of children dropped by up to 85% throughout the 14 villages that were involved in their initial six-month project.

Jerry Sternin went on to create an entire movement based upon Positive Deviance. To quote from his website,, “Positive Deviance (PD) is a development approach that is based on the premise that solutions to community problems already exist within the community.”

So let’s apply this concept to aging out of foster care.  Is the challenge of aging out of foster care a community problem?  I think yes. If I am right, it begs the question…where are the aging out positive deviants? Is it possible to find the people and programs that are consistently promoting aging out success, and then then share their secrets with everyone else in the foster care community? Again, I think yes. In fact, finding and sharing the aging out “positive deviant” strategies around the country is one of the things I hope to accomplish with the AOI National Awards Program.

Through an application process, foster parents and organizations will explain the strategies they use to successfully help youth prepare to age out of foster care, or to help support them after they have aged out while they find their place in the world. After the winners are selected, AOI will write up white papers (or “strategy papers” as we’re calling them) that will give the details of each winner’s strategies so that others who work with foster youth throughout the country can learn from them, and possibly even apply them in their own homes or programs.

Do you know any “positive deviants” who help youth age out of foster care and into independence with effective, innovative strategies? If so, please tell them about the AOI National Awards Program being launched in 2018 – we definitely want them to apply when the application window opens on 01.01.18!