Spouse of Lt. Cmdr. Jonathan W. Sims
Commander, Carrier Strike Group Eight
Naval Station Norfolk
After growing up in foster care and becoming a psychologist, Dr. Deborah Harris-Sims found herself in the perfect position to dedicate herself to helping children who were aging out of the foster care system. Deborah is the spouse of Lt. Cmdr. Jonathan W. Sims, a Flag communications officer for Commander, Carrier Strike Group Eight, currently deployed on board USS Eisenhower.
In 2001, Deborah founded and became the chief executive officer of Hopes for Higher Education (HHE), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the overall quality of life for youth aging out of the foster care system. It is estimated that 25,000 age out of foster care each year. One in four experience homelessness within one year of leaving the system. The rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are twice as high for foster care alumni than war veterans. Sims could have been one of these statistics, but instead works to keep others from experiencing these troubles.
“I grew up in foster care, and I was eventually adopted,” Deborah said. “Both of my birth parents had passed away, and I faced what many kids face aging out. After I finished college, I started working in this area as a therapist 15 years ago. I’m blessed, so while I’m here on this earth, I want to do things to help bless others. I want to give back for the help that others have given me, love and a home and all those great things that go into creating a great society.”
The goal of HHE is to form direct connections with higher education institutions and community organizations to improve the quality of life and higher-education opportunities for foster children, as well as to support and mentor them throughout their college years and provide scholarship assistance.
“I go to a number of trainings and workshops and speaking engagements, hundreds, maybe thousands, and it’s something I do voluntarily,” Deborah said. “When I lived in South Carolina, HHE partnered with Wal-Mart who matched the funds we raised for college scholarships. All donations go directly to the kids, including a recent grant from Maybelline for $10,000.”
Deborah has also testified in Congress about multi-level advocacy, and works with colleges who have questions about how to best support those who have a foster care background.
In addition to providing advocacy through her own organization, Sims is also on the board of directors for New Pathways Independent Living Program, a Baltimore, Md., program which she became involved in three years ago when her husband was stationed in Washington, D.C.
“New Pathways works with youth who are preparing to age out of foster care, provides life and living skills, provides housing and teaches them how to live on own,” Deborah explained. “As a board member for the last three years, I help formulate policy, oversee the organization, and approve the budget and hiring process. I go there for meetings every other month.”
Deborah has stayed involved with the program because Sims will transfer back to D.C. next year after completing an Individual Augmentee tour in Iraq. Locally, Deborah recently joined the Board of Directors for The Elijah Foundation, a Virginia Beach-based organization that designs and develops children’s books that discuss diseases and disorders.
“I became involved as a topic expert for psychology,” Deborah said. “Most books are created for parents to learn about the diseases and disorders their children have and are not really for children themselves. I helped write a book about foster care for siblings to understand why the child is now a member of their family.”
Writing has become another passion for Deborah, who uses her skills as a writer and researcher to assist the National Military Family Association (NMFA) with their newsletters and fact sheets, also reviewing website content.
“I started out in 2005 as a writer, but a year ago I became a public representative in the community,” Deborah explained. “I attend events like Spouse Buzz in Virginia Beach a month ago to promote our services. I promote programs like the military spouse scholarship program, Operation Purple camp, which is a children’s camp available in the summer for the children of deployed servicemembers, as well as our counseling services.”
As an NMFA representative, Deborah frequently attends Family Readiness Group meetings to listen to the concerns of families, report the information to NMFA, as well as pass the information to senators and others who can help create legislative policies.
Deborah manages to stay involved in these organizations despite being a faculty member and professor at Strayer University for the past five years.
“I teach various psychology courses and graduate-level courses,” Deborah said. “I teach two classes on campus and am there four days a week. I teach other courses online. As an academic advisor, I offer advice about the degree programs. The job has been a positive experience, and the online program helps me maintain employment when we move.”
Strayer University gave Deborah not only portable employment, but also a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to open the Strayer Campus in Louisville, Ky., as the campus dean.
“We made the decision to be separated before because of his assignments, but this was the first time because of something I desired,” Deborah said. “This was not going to come around again since it’s usually based on longevity. So I took the leap and opened the campus. He was stationed in Florida on USS John F. Kennedy, so he flew up as often as possible.”
Like many in the military, long periods of separation and constant change have been a common thread in the Sims’ lives together. Sims expects to return from deployment in June, only to begin preparation for a yearlong Individual Augmentee tour in Iraq.
“It’s scary for me for him to be out now,” Deborah said. “I will be very worried, but I know he’s doing what he loves.”
After a follow-on tour in Washington, D.C., and Sims’ retirement from active duty, they dream of more changes – to open a restaurant and have enough time for children of their own as their lives take yet another exciting new direction.