Darryl McDaniels' Foster Care Charity Celebrates 15 Years: 'A Kid's Situation Doesn't Define Them'
The Run-DMC rapper tells PEOPLE about how the Felix Organization is continuing to change young lives
For over 15 years, Darryl McDaniels has helped foster care youth reach their full potential.
The Run-DMC rapper and his non-profit, the Felix Organization, are raising money on May 9 with their "Walk This Way" event to help collect funds for their organization and to celebrate National Foster Care Month — and he talks to PEOPLE about the charity's impact.
"We like to tell people that your responsibility to children, and the youth, is not just to the kids that you give birth to," McDaniels, 56, tells PEOPLE. "Every child on this Earth deserves the opportunity to have people in their lives that allow them to be what they were put here for... that's one of the things that we carry in the formation of the Felix Organization."
After discovering he was adopted at the age of 35, McDaniels met casting director, Sheila Jaffe, who was also adopted. After bonding over their experiences, they created the Felix Organization in 2006.
While McDaniels says that he and Jaffe originally started with the idea to have foster care facilities in every state, after listening to family and friends, they decided to "start smaller" and created Camp Felix. With locations on the coasts, Camp Felix allows children in the foster care systems to make lasting memories during the summer. Campers can partake in swim lessons, create art, rock climb, dance and more while at the program. Since their 2019 camp season, the organization has served 13,000 youth.
"Some of the kids only know the concrete streets of a neighborhood they grew up in," says McDaniels. "So they're gonna get out there and see nature, and for them to get out to be able to swim...that's the whole camp experience."
The rapper shares that upon finding out about his own adoption, he was able to then have more empathy and understanding to relate to children in the foster care system.
"That was a huge, traumatic, shocking and confusing revelation," McDaniels says. "And at the time too, I was already going through some mental health issues. So upon receiving that [news] it just took me to this other place and I felt really alone. So I can understand how kids feel in certain situations as orphans, foster kids and adopted kids."
After McDaniels' agent put him in touch with Jaffe, McDaniels no longer felt isolated by his situation.
"When I met Sheila, I didn't feel alone anymore. It was like, 'Wow, there's another adopted person like me.' She was my hero," says McDaniels. " We just talked about how we felt and that was the most helpful because we had all these emotions. She said we were fortunate to get adopted, we don't like using the word lucky."
He adds, "And then she said, 'What about all those kids in foster care that might not get adopted or continuously go through that vicious cycle of being in a foster care system? We got to do something for them.'"
McDaniels says that investing in the youth is so important because they are the future leaders, creators and innovators. He details how over the years he has heard "a million stories" of children in the Felix Organization who have excelled after they were given the right support and resources.
"I think about seven years ago, the New York City School of Dance came one weekend and was just giving free lessons to the kids," McDaniels says. "And this one girl, she was exceptional, so the New York School of Dance gave her a free scholarship to attend. The beautiful thing about it was she wrote us a letter. And it was basically saying 'I never thought that anybody would look at me and say that I would be capable of becoming or doing something.' Oh, tears for all of us. All of us adults sat around and we cried."
The rapper says that the work they do at the Felix Organization is important not only for changing the lives of children, but also to change people's preconceived notions about children in the foster care system.
"We want people to understand that these kids are no different from your own sons and daughters," McDaniels says. "Once people get to that realization, there are people who would prefer a foster kid over their own kids because their own kids can be just as crazy. But what I'm trying to say is these kids have the same problems that any kid has, it took me to go through my whole Run-DMC life to be able to partake in what I was put here to do."
The Felix Organization's "Walk This Way" charity event will take place in New York City along Hudson River Park and will be a socially distanced walkathon. The 5K walk will be in timed waves of 50 people as recommended by the CDC. McDaniels and Jaffe decided a 5K would be representative of the "sacrifice and responsibility" it takes to help foster care youth.
"Usually, we do all of these little small fundraisers and get togethers throughout the year, but for the last year, we couldn't do that," says McDaniels. "So Sheila came up with the wonderful idea of getting outside and said 'Let's do something on Mother's Day that symbolizes the responsibility and the sacrifice of becoming somebody that's going to be there for these kids in foster care.'"
"We chose Mother's Day because it's a family-loving holiday and it's the perfect time of the year because now we're not confined to the indoors," he adds. "We want to walk socially distant and it's a way to get everybody together to celebrate the greatness of what Felix is doing for these kids."
While the organization has made great strides in the past 15 years and has been able to serve thousands of children in foster care, McDaniels still wants to do more and hopes that in the future the organization will be able to push for policy changes to the foster care system.
"I think when you're an organization you want to get to the point where you're so powerful, that you can go back and can change policy," says McDaniels. "We can change policy that's really going to protect the kids, that's the powerhouse that Felix wants to become... we want to allow those kids to get to the position where they are running the agency that was put in charge of making sure their lives are protected, productive and are safe for them."
"That's the Felix responsibility," he adds.
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