On the Road with FMC

Climb for Foster Youth

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Four in the morning, and the moon is coming up over the steep shoulder of Mt. Shasta, a 14,180- foot volcano in far northern California.

I look above me and see 15 climbers pulling themselves upward, the glacier appearing in small white circles where the light of their headlamps fall. Their crampons bite the hard, icy snow while the points of their ice axes chime a steady rhythm upward.

The moon, brand new, is a sliver, painted bright orange--an effect of huge fires that have been ravaging southern Oregon, setting a haze on the valley below that won't leave for a month. Just behind the moon comes the sun, chasing close.

It is the first time I have ever seen a moon like and sunrise like this, and I know for the 15 other climbers that cold early morning, it is their first, as well. For some of the six former foster youth who are climbing with us, most far ahead of me, it is their first time ever waking at midnight to strap metal crampons to their boots in an effort to get to the top of a mountain that is, by any standard, serious mountaineering.

For two, Crystal del Valle and Kevin Clark, it is their second time on Shasta. One year before, they had been on the first annual "Climb for Foster Youth," which I had organized on behalf of California Youth Connection (CYC). Both had made it to the top, during what proved to be a harrowing ascent.

This second year, 18 people signed up for the climb, and raised over $10,000 to support CYC in its mission of empowering current and former foster youth to advocate for their brothers and sisters in care.

In 2013, CYC turned 25. Since its founding, it has become California's preeminent foster youth policy and advocacy organization, leading legislative efforts that have extended foster care to age 21, ensuring greater educational stability for students in foster care, and supporting a raft of other laws beneficial to California's 50,000 youth in care. In addition, the CYC model has fostered a national youth advocacy movement, inspiring as many as 100 CYC-like groups across the country--most notably the National Foster Youth Action Network, founded by former CYC Executive Director Janet Knipe, which works to bind together those disparate groups into one cohesive national advocacy force.

As a member of the CYC's Board of Directors, I have looked to the organization and young leaders like Kevin and Crystal for inspiration in all my efforts to improve foster care.

At 12,000 feet, now high up on the steepening glacier, the group took a rest. Above and beyond our immediate view was a 45-degree ramp of ice and snow. Below, in the fast, brightening dawn, a long crevasse showed itself, a fearsome reminder of the costs of slipping. We had a group meeting and decided that the majority of the climbers should descend.

With the sun still low on the horizon, haze from the smoke in the north blurring the green and brown of the hills, and mountains that stretched for miles and miles beyond, nine of the 15 climbers took their first steps back toward camp. Kevin led the group.

In the end, six of the original 15 made it to the top. But that really wasn't the point.

When I got back down to Shasta City, where everyone was staying, later that evening, Kerrington, a 21-year-old CYC chapter president from San Diego County described, how much fun he had.

"I'll be back next year," he said. "And I want to go up the north side," he added in reference to the steep route he had thought better to tackle on his first outing.

That was the point: that these young people recognize that there is no shame in turning around. Better to do that and be back--a lesson that they bring to their effective political advocacy in California's capital city each day.

Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections, publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change, and a proud board member of the California Youth Connection.

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