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Founded in 2004 by Kathryn Leonard and Heather O’Keefe, StepStones began as a volunteer-run, overnight summer camp for girls aged 6-14 who had experienced abuse, trauma, and neglect. Many of these girls were growing up in foster care and Kathryn and Heather recognized that after the summer was over, there was a gap in services for these young girls that was negatively impacting their performance at school and their personal trajectories. They learned that their forced exit from the foster care system at age 18 without any support was producing devastating outcomes for them.

The first of its kind in Canada, StepStones’ Youth Support Services Program was launched by in 2011, expanding services to young people of all genders who were in, exiting, or had transitioned out of the foster care system and who required urgent preventative and intervention support to avoid dropping out of school and experiencing homelessness, mental health crises, isolation, and perpetual poverty.

In 2013 Kathryn passed away but her legacy is still felt in StepStones innovative and evidence-based mentorship and homelessness prevention programming that grew to assisting over 300 youth annually.

Today, StepStones is a recognized industry leader across the national child welfare sector, StepStones has received several recent awards. Heather O’Keefe was one of six finalists in the prestigious 2021 National Lynn Factor Stand Up for Kids Award, recognizing outstanding achievements in the child welfare sector. StepStones for Youth was voted a top 100 charity by Charity Intelligence this same year. In 2022, our own pilot project, Building Connection – Safe at Home, was awarded a National Youth Homelessness Prevention Award through A Way Home Canada and Making the Shift.


We exist to support youth involved in child welfare and to drive at better systems and approaches for educational achievement, securing stable housing, and building long-lasting support networks.


A world where all young people thrive and have a sense of belonging with people who love and support them.

Who We Serve

StepStones serves young people aged 10-25 in and transitioning out of the foster care system, a population considered to be among society’s most vulnerable. We believe that every young person, despite their family situation, has the right to belong with people who love and value them unconditionally and support them in achieving their potential. Through no fault of their own, most children and youth from foster care are denied this right. Untreated trauma, unstable living conditions, and a lack of familial support result in a profoundly negative trajectory for the beneficiaries of our program.

Many of the young people we serve are from marginalized communities including Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities; newcomer, immigrant, and refugee communities; and 2SLGBTQ+ communities. The beneficiaries of our program include youth who:

  • have suffered abuse, neglect, trauma, and unstable guardian care;
  • are economically disadvantaged;
  • lack education and/or have dropped out of school
  • are estranged from their birth, adoptive, or kinship caregivers and lack supportive adults in their lives;
  • are marginalized and disproportionately racialized;
  • struggle with mental health concerns and substance use;
  • are homeless or have run away from home;
  • have significant concerns with self-esteem and/or behaviour

These young people are also among the most talented, creative, and compassionate and want to succeed in life as well as help others succeed. We know that the youth we serve can achieve positive outcomes in their lives when appropriate and sustainable supports are in place and we are committed to helping them attain what they need to realize their potential.

Strategic Plan (2022-2024)

Our Beliefs

We believe every child and youth in and from foster care deserves the opportunity to thrive.  All of StepStones’ work is guided by strong beliefs that reflect our commitment to young people with experience in the child welfare sector.  The following beliefs anchor our work:

  • All children and youth deserve and have the right to belong with people who love and value them unconditionally throughout the course of their lives
  • Children have the right to live without the threat or actuality of abuse, homelessness, and victimization
  • Communities and extended families have the ability to care for their own children with support
  • Positive outcomes are possible for youth from foster care when they are provided with the appropriate conditions and support that allow them to thrive and be successful
  • Children and youth involved in the child welfare system deserve to have the same outcomes as those who have secure families
  • As a society, we are responsible to amend the injustices faced by children and youth in and from the foster care and group home systems who have become involved with Ontario’s Child Protection Services through no fault of their own
  • Secure housing and a caring family are critical to an individual’s attainment of educational and personal success
  • When children and youth are supported to thrive, they are less likely to experience isolation, homelessness, criminal involvement, high school dropout, adverse physical and mental health, and long-term dependency on social service/institutional reliance
  • Implementing prevention models leads to a decreased need for services and drastically reduces dependency on corrective social services, consequently disrupting the cycle of poverty and intergenerational child welfare involvement
  • Interdependence, not independence, is our goal for children and youth from the child welfare system
  • Long-term sustainable change is preferable to and more effective than short-term intervention

Key Principles

  • Youth Centered: Youth outcomes and youth needs are at the center of all decision-making processes
  • Long-Term over Short-Term: Sustainable and preventative solutions should always be resourced, valued, and prioritized over short-term intervention
  • Recognizing Inequities: We seek to actively recognize and address the systemic and intersectional nature of inequities and the ways in which those cause greater harm to populations who have experienced oppression and trauma-particularly youth from 2SLGBTQ+, Black, and Indigenous communities who have been overrepresented in our child welfare systems.  Our commitments to anti-racism are further outlined here and to supporting youth who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ here.
  • Solidarity, not Charity: We work in solidarity with youth affected by the child welfare system, recognizing the impact of structural and systemic barriers that prevent individuals from realizing their potential
  • Innovation: We identify service gaps and think outside of the box; imagining a world that allows this population to thrive allows us to create innovative and effective methods of interventions
  • Collaboration: We believe in the strength of the community we work with and know that the best outcomes will be achieved when we work together
  • Evidence-Based: We root out models, policies, and service deliveries in evidence-based practices in order to achieve intended outcomes
  • Transparent and Accountable: We take pride in our diligence, our accountability to our stakeholders, and our transparency of policy and procedure with our partners, young people, community members, and allies

Long-Term Intended Impact

  • A reduction in the number of children and youth living and growing up in foster care unnecessarily
  • A decrease in the number of youth who exit foster care without the conditions in place that allow them to thrive

Three Pillars that Guide our Programming

  1. Find and Develop Innovative Solutions
  • OBJECTIVE: We have identified interventions, through research and evaluation, that have shown to be effective in positively changing outcomes for young people from the child welfare system
  • PATHWAY: We identify gaps in service and research interventions that drive positive, long-term outcomes for children and youth in and from foster care

  1. Program Delivery to Children and Youth
  • OBJECTIVE: Youth in our program have demonstrated: increased educational engagement, increased safe and stable housing, increased sense of belonging and positive connections, and improved mental health. We have surfaced new insights about effective interventions for broader application
  • PATHWAY: We adapt, implement, and evaluate promising interventions to support youth in a successful transition to adulthood. Our primary areas of focus are building connections, education, housing, and mental health.  We collect evidence of effective ways to create the conditions for youth from foster care to thrive.

  1. Drive at Systems Change through Education, Awareness, and Influence
  • OBJECTIVE: We are serving as a thought leader regarding youth in and aging out of foster care; have informed policy positions that create long-term, positive outcomes; have contributed to increased awareness and exposure of the issues surrounding youth from foster care; and have influenced an increased recognition of the importance of youth voices in the process.
  • PATHWAY: We leverage our experience and research to bring awareness for youth from foster care through amplifying their voices, engaging with key stakeholders and policymakers, running awareness-raising campaigns, and participating in collective impact and collaborative initiatives

Our Founder and Executive Director: Heather O’Keefe

Heather O’Keefe is the founder and Executive Director of StepStones for Youth, a thriving Toronto charity that creates transformative outcomes in the lives of young people involved in Ontario’s Child Protection Services. StepStones’ innovative and award-winning programming significantly increases educational attainment, stable housing, and supportive networks while reducing homelessness, criminal involvement, and isolation for vulnerable young people in and from foster care. With extensive work experience in child protection and as the visionary leader of StepStones, Heather is a respected and leading figure in the field of child welfare. She consults charities in the areas of strategic planning, program development, and research and has developed impact-driven solutions to addressing the unmet needs of this population through her charitable organization.

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