Children's Voice Oct/Nov 2005

In This Issue

Executive Directions
Parenting Pages
Management Matters
About Children's Voice

Finding perfect matches in life can be challenging--whether it's finding the perfect mate, the perfect job, or the perfect home. In child welfare, perfectly matching children's needs to the appropriate resources and services can be even more challenging. But at least one resource is too often underused, despite being ideally suited to child welfare--youth who want to help other youth in need.

Twenty-year-old Laura Greer wowed the audience at CWLA's 2005 National Conference when she shared the story of her successful experience as a high schooler volunteering at a Miami emergency shelter. Lending youthful energy and optimism to the job, she interacted with children of all ages and became an integral part of the shelter's staff, who in turn entrusted her to perform more than just menial jobs. Laura's interaction with other youth not only helped her define who she was but also led her to make a unique contribution to the child welfare field and to children and youth in foster care by writing What's Happening? A Guide for Kids Entering Foster Care, published by CWLA.

Today, as a Yale University student, Laura continues to work with youth. A member of the Community Health Educators at Yale, she provides health instruction to high school students in New Haven. And she continues to advocate for youth in need by volunteering in a guardian ad litem program.

Mary Lee has also brought valuable perspective and experience to the field. As a former youth in foster care, adopted shortly before her 18th birthday, Mary has committed to giving back to the system in which she grew up. Since age 15, she has worked to improve the foster care system, including serving on CWLA's National Foster Youth Advisory Council, the Tennessee Youth Advisory Council, and the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, and working as an intern for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Now 23, Mary graduated last year from Austin Peay State University with a bachelor's degree in social work and is interning as a consultant for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

Here, both young women share their stories with Children's Voice readers. Laura shares how by closely listening to children in need, she discovered that their questions and fears about foster care often went unanswered. Mary shares how, from personal experience, she understands youth can view foster care as a punishment rather than an opportunity, and she is working to address this misperception. Both women are proof that positive results come from youth helping other youth.

I am no stranger to the child welfare system, and I understand the importance of the system because of my personal experiences with it. At age 12, I entered foster care due to abuse and neglect, and I remained in the child welfare system for almost five years.

Although my case was reviewed every six months, it wasn't until I was 16 that a judge asked me what I wanted for my life. I replied, "I want what everyone wants--a family of my own." I asked to be adopted, even though I knew my chances were slim because of my age.

People, including case managers, didn't understand why I wanted to be adopted, and they tried to prepare me for the rejection of not finding a family. I told them I had to try because I wanted a family--a home to go to during school breaks, a dad to walk me down the aisle, grandparents for my children, and the reassurance I would have unconditional love and support for the rest of my life. Family isn't just about now, it's about the rest of your life.

Because a judge listened to me, I was adopted one week before my 18th birthday by my case manager and his family. I knew he and his wife were participating in adoptive parent training--what a wonderful surprise to learn it was because they wanted to adopt me! If I hadn't spoken up for myself that day seven years ago, I wouldn't have a family. I would have aged out of the system like so many other foster youth, without any permanent connections.

For the past eight years, I have been dedicated to influencing and improving the foster care system for children who would follow me. I became involved in child advocacy after attending a local foster teen conference. I was amazed to see other youth who were involved, and it inspired me to become a child advocate.

In 1996, I applied to be a member of the Tennessee Youth Advisory Council (TYAC), a group of youth currently in foster care and adults who wanted to make a difference in the foster care system in Tennessee. TYAC gave me the opportunity to help make improvements in the foster care system and engage the community by allowing me to speak to youth, foster parents, Department of Children's Services staff, judges, legislators, and the Governor. I've also had the privilege of attending national conferences, where I met First Lady Hillary Clinton.

I have served on Youth Advisory Councils at the local, state, and national levels, and I am currently president of CWLA's National Foster Youth Advisory Council. In 1999, Governor Don Sundquist appointed me to the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth; in 2002 Governor Phil Bredesen reappointed me to another three-year term. As a commission member, I am responsible for reviewing policies and bills related to children's issues and making recommendations to the legislature.

My passion about issues surrounding foster care and adoption has led me to devote my future to child advocacy. I have a unique knowledge of the child welfare system, and I can use my experience to help other youth.

Foster care isn't the path I would have picked for my life, but I have chosen not to dwell on the negative aspects of being a foster child. Instead, I made a conscious decision to look at foster care as an opportunity rather than a punishment. I know foster care was the best thing that could have happened for me as a child. Because of the system, I was able to find a family, complete high school, and graduate from Austin Peay State University in 2004 with major in social work.

This allowed me to make my time in foster care a positive aspect of my life. I wouldn't be the person I am today if I had not been in foster care. Now I work to ensure that each child in foster care has the opportunity to exit care a better person than before entering custody. Each child has the right to receive the necessary services and resources to ensure that he or she becomes a successful adult. Former foster youth have an amazing opportunity to support children by making sure they are aware of their rights and to ensure those rights are protected.

In 2004, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute selected me to serve as an intern in the office of Senator Elizabeth Dole in Washington, DC. The internship allowed me to observe the process of creating policies and laws. Researching pending legislation and attending committee hearings, meetings, and press conferences was an incredible education and gave me a broader understanding of the legislative process. The experience reinforced my desire to obtain a law degree and pursue a career as a child advocate.

Now I'm working for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative (JCYOI), whose mission is to help foster youth successfully transition from foster care to adulthood by supporting them in the areas of personal and community engagement, education, employment, housing, and health care. Working for JCYOI gives me the opportunity to use my experiences in foster care to improve the lives of foster youth through public will and policy, community engagement, and direct contact with youth. Working to improve the child welfare system isn't just a job, it's my life and a part of who I have become.

By overcoming the adversities in my life, I have become more determined to accomplish my goals and make a difference. My goal is to complete law school so I can develop and improve legislation and policies surrounding children in foster care, in Tennessee and nationally. I also hope to continue sharing my experiences with children in foster care to motivate them to use the foster care system as a stepping-stone for success. Youth in foster care relate and listen to former foster youth because they share a connection of being a foster child. The child welfare system can use former foster youth as child advocates, case managers, mentors, role models, trainers, and recruiters of foster and adoptive families.

As professionals, we can motivate all foster youth to use their experiences in care in a positive manner. Youth in foster care truly are the experts when it comes to the child welfare system, and they should be engaged in improving the system. Youth engagement starts when we ask youth what they want and when we include them in important decisions locally and nationally. Once youth realize their voice is heard, they will continue to speak to the issues of the system. Just like the voice of a young girl who was counting on the child welfare system to do the right thing for her, other children are hoping the system will do the right thing for them.

This is the story of how I got involved in foster care, why I stayed involved, and how that led me to write a book, What's Happening? A Guide for Kids Entering Foster Care. By sharing my personal experiences as a volunteer, I hope to offer some ideas about how to attract and keep dedicated young volunteers.

Trying to improve the lives of the children may seem overwhelming sometimes, but the incremental changes we make every day add up to a major positive impact on our communities. The energy of young volunteers is a crucial resource organizations can harness to make those changes possible. Young volunteers don't necessarily know or think about the volunteer opportunities in their communities, so organizations may have to employ nontraditional recruiting methods to attract talented youth. Young adults aren't necessarily going to call your organization or show up at a volunteer open house. They may not even know you're out there! Even if they do know about the organization, they may never have thought about volunteering, or they may not know how to get started.

I got involved as a volunteer with foster children because a family friend reached out to me personally, saw I had some extra energy, and thought I could put it to use at the foster care shelter where she worked. She invited me to meet her one afternoon at the emergency shelter of the Children's Home Society (CHS) in my hometown of Miami, Florida. The personal connection she made with me, and her encouragement, were vital to capturing me as a volunteer. I had enjoyed volunteering through my school, but it hadn't occurred to me to take the next step and start volunteering regularly until my friend talked to me about it.

So the first step to increasing the number of young volunteers at your organization is to try to reach them through friends, family, teachers, or religious leaders who can make a personal contact with them and introduce them to your organization.

Once they have been introduced to your organization, the second step is to make a warm, friendly first impression. My friend's one-on-one recruiting got me down to the CHS shelter, but it was the professionalism of the staff and the orientation program that made me feel part of something special. I can't overstate the value of putting new volunteers at ease. They may not know what to expect and may be self-conscious or uncomfortable in an adult environment, so making them feel welcome, comfortable, and needed is critical.

The CHS foster care shelter is in a rough part of Miami. It's the first stop for kids who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. The kids arrive at all hours with little more than the clothes on their backs. They arrive by themselves or with siblings, and they range from newborns to young teenagers. The emergency shelter is intimidating to a young volunteer, but the process I went through made me feel like part of the organization, not an outsider.

Before I began to volunteer, I went through a very well-thought-out orientation that included tours of the facilities, meetings with various staff members, and thorough training for various situations. The training took up most of a Saturday, but it was time well spent because I felt comfortable at CHS before I had even started volunteering. I had made connections with staff members and other volunteers, and I felt like I was part of something that was organized and focused, something that was driving forward to make a difference. It was pretty cool to feel like part of something that major.

Young volunteers have a lot of energy and optimism. To keep that going, the agency has to make them feel welcomed and help them establish a connection with the organization. The CHS staff never made me feel my contributions were insignificant because I was younger than most of the other volunteers. I wasn't relegated to filing or answering phones. CHS gave me responsibility for caring for the shelter's youngest clients--the newborns, some of them born drug-addicted. I had the opportunity to prove I could handle hands-on work, despite my age. I still did my fair share of folding clothes and photocopying, but I didn't mind because I had a chance to experience the agency's real work.

This strengthened my commitment to volunteering regularly. I usually came to CHS after school a few days a week. At first, I spent my time with the babies, rocking and feeding them, or changing them and providing some of the one-on-one contact that is so vital for those little ones. I worked side by side with a staff member whom I got to know very well. She was always friendly and seemed genuinely happy to see me each time I arrived, which really made me feel like I was part of the team.

Instead of confining me to the littlest clients, the staff encouraged me to spend time in all areas of the shelter. Some afternoons, when all the infants were sleeping, I would be assigned to the afterschool area for the elementary children. Instead of keeping me away from these kids, because of our closeness in ages, the staff encouraged me to spend time with them. I think they were onto something. Because I was only a few years older, I could blend in just enough to make friendships and provide support, but I was still old enough to help with homework and be a role model. The afternoons I spent with them were probably the most formative of my life.

My years at CHS forced me to think outside my own small life and about the lives of other people my own age. I come from a home with two wonderful parents and two supportive older siblings. Because the kids I was working with were my own age, I think I felt their pain even more deeply. How could their lives be so different from mine? How could other kids be burdened with life experiences and futures that were so unfair?

More importantly, what could I do about it?

The answer to that last question came when I was in 10th grade and volunteering regularly at CHS, working with elementary kids. During those afternoons, the kids would ask me questions like, "Why am I here?," "Where's my brother?," or "When am I going home?" I had no answers, and it broke my heart. I assumed there was some resource, a pamphlet or a book, that could answer these obvious questions. I talked to fellow volunteers and staff members, but no one had ever encountered such a resource.

Without considering the complexity of the challenge, I took on the project that would result in What's Happening? A Guide for Kids Entering Foster Care, a question-and-answer book about foster care for foster children that's now distributed nationally by CWLA. When I started, I planned to make a pamphlet with one fold, maybe two if I got ambitious. It would have basic information about foster care, and each child in foster care could get one when he or she arrived at CHS. I didn't anticipate it would take thousands of hours of time and effort and turn out to be a 40-page book with its own ISBN number!

But as I talked to the staff at CHS, particularly the director, the project grew. Instead of pushing me aside or telling me they didn't have time or resources for another project, which they didn't, they encouraged me to be innovative. They lent me books to read full of laws and regulations about foster care. They let me participate in foster parent training so I could see the preparation foster parents receive. When I wanted to interview foster parents and children, they invited me to gatherings and introduced me to everyone. When I came up with a preliminary list of questions and answers, they reviewed them for me.

With encouragement from CHS and lots of perseverance, the Florida Department of Children and Families approved my book for statewide distribution to foster care agencies. Just a year after I had began work on my little pamphlet, my book was actually being used by foster children and the adults who work with them. Soon, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the guardian ad litem program, and groups working with children in the foster care system ordered so many copies that we went into a second printing.

One day I was back at CHS, feeling quite good about things, when I overheard a foster child speaking to his brother in Spanish. A large part of the South Florida community, and a growing number of communities in the United States, are native Spanish speakers. That day, I started work on a Spanish translation of the book. In the process, I learned to deal with many cultural issues, including that there is no word in Spanish for foster care. The Spanish version was very popular.

My project was just a small solution to a need I perceived in my community. Because CHS created a welcoming environment for me, a young volunteer, I now have a lifelong commitment to civic activism.

Getting volunteers to think beyond volunteering, to be creative about solutions to problems they see in their communities, and to develop solutions to those problems, is the ultimate goal in recruiting volunteers. By making personal contact with young volunteers, involving them in a real way in your organization, and supporting them when they think creatively, you can contribute to developing the next generation of community leaders.

 What's Happening? A Guide for Kids Entering Foster Care

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