In the past three years I have spoken at many events. Every time I give a speech or take part in a panel it gives me great pleasure to know I am advocating on behalf of foster youth everywhere, but no other panel has affected me on such an emotional level than the one I sat on last week at the Pathways to Independence Summit. This panel was titled "Call for Help -- Just Not 911." This panel was based on developing improved methods of handling troubled youth to reduce the amount of law enforcement contacts made by group homes and foster homes related to issues of fighting, arguing, or when youth take a walk to cool off without being provided permission to do so. The goal was finding other means to deal with issues of this nature that would offer more support to the youth.
I sat on this panel with three other foster youth and three experts on the issues. We each spoke about our time in care and how calling 911 has affected us as young adults. This panel touched me because I know how it feels to have law enforcement called on me; I know how it feels for someone to tell you who you are, when that's not you at all. You see I have two juvenile battery charges from my time in foster care that occurred during 2005 and 2006, almost 6 years ago and I am still dealing with them today. I know as you read this you are thinking "There juvenile charges, how can they still affect you?" I could not join the military, I could not live in the University of South Florida dorms, and I may not be able to obtain employment that requires the supervision of children, which is the type of job I want all because of my charges. Emotionally it's worse, I have to go in an interview every time and explain how the person they read about in the arrest report is not me. I have to look people in the face while they ask me "Why am I so violent." I have to pray and hope that whoever is reading about me and my charges will overlook them and give me a chance.
Sitting on this panel and explaining to the audience how important it is to not always contact law enforcement was important to me. The panel was all of 60 minutes, and in those 60 minutes I grew. I grew to realize an arrest report Does Not define me, a charge Does Not define me, What Does define me, is what I do every day, which is work to help to change the lives of all foster youth.
I got caught crying...and that's why I'm writing this piece. I had the awesome opportunity to attend the Pathways to Independence Summit in Orlando this past week. While there I got to attend a panel hosted by my peers who are former foster youth that were speaking on the importance of trying to resolve issues with youth who are acting out before resorting to calling the police. Hearing my peers (who are all amazing young adults that I know both personally and professionally) struggle to explain the anger, confusion, and pain inside of them that caused them to act out that led to them being involved with the police struck a very emotional chord with me. To hear them explain the feelings of being re-traumatized, disrespected, and misunderstood by the people that were supposed to help heal them from the hurts that they had already experienced with their own families, and what it feels like to be handed from one disinterested agency to another feeling that nobody cares about you as a person, only as a case number and a statistic touched me deeply and personally.
I was a problem child while I was in care, no matter how much harm I did to myself, no matter how many problems I caused in my life, I seemed unable to stop myself from acting out. Looking back it seemed that I did my best to destroy every positive person and thing that came into my life. I was so afraid of being let down that I went out of my way to avoid being raised in any kind of positive way. The only way I can think to describe myself during those years is, a really bad kid. I did everything a "bad kid" could possibly do, I skipped school, eventually I dropped out, I did drugs, I was disrespectful, I cursed, I didn't listen to anyone, I ran away, I lied and cheated and stole and was only concerned with myself. At one point in time I'm sure that everyone who had cared about me or even tried to, gave up on me. I was so far gone into this pattern of self destruction; I don't think anyone thought that I would come out on the right side.
These were the things that were running through my mind when the director of Florida Children's First, Christina Spudeas, someone who knows my story as well as countless other youth, and she stated that she had heard so many of us tell her what "bad kids" we were, how we repeatedly denounced ourselves and our actions and how she never once heard our stories and considered us bad, just hurt and confused and often troubled, but never bad, or wrong, or dangerous, or so many of the ways we so often described ourselves. And that is what made me cry, not just for myself and the troubled youth that I was, but for all of us there, all of my peers who came out on the other side of all of their pain and anger to make something better of themselves. I am grateful for the people who offered us the absolution and understanding when we couldn't give it to ourselves, to help us grow to understand ourselves and to enable us to extend this same absolution and understanding to the next generation who will face the same struggles.
On April 30, 1789 General George Washington became the first President of the United States of America. It may come as a surprise but the general himself did not believe he was the right person to lead a young country with a history book that was slightly more than blank and a single goal of freedom that was achieved 13 years prior at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington wasn't a good speaker or writer, he had little education, and he hadn't traveled the world. Compared to other great names of the day, he was a fluke. So how did this man become one of the greatest leaders this country has ever known?
He became the people.
While he is credited for winning many battles during the birth of our country, he didn’t achieve victory alone. The strategy may have been his but it was only with the power of all the men who fought beside him that the enemy fell to its knees. Washington understood that the country was the people, not one man. He simply listened and gave direction.
Florida Youth SHINE is similar in observation. Though we have already accomplished much, our history books are still very much blank as we are a young community with many to come behind us. Understand that we are more than the six we have elected to take the reigns of this organization. We are a network of hundreds with different strengths, ideas, offerings, and roles. Our goal is to protect our peers and ensure things we have fought for uphold so that we may all continuously prosper into the future. As the new Statewide Chair of Florida Youth SHINE I am here not to lead but to direct and guide. At the end of my term I will measure accomplishment by the number of you that have stepped forward in this organization. You may not have a title after your name but there is still much expected of you and my goal is to find your talents and delegate so that each passing day our history book is filled with moments of greatness from each of you.
I am excited for what the year will bring for Florida Youth SHINE and I look forward to working with the board and each of you to bring success. Have a great Fourth of July and remember; our strength does not come from one man; it comes from all of us and the bond that we have created.
Sometimes change comes about and it is unexpected. It is in this change that our greatest opportunities lie. I know that we all are going to miss Secretary Sheldon but with new leadership Florida Youth SHINE is given a chance to form a relationship with Secretary Wilkins, embrace his tenure, and work with him as we did with Secretary Sheldon. Winston Churchill once said, “There is nothing wrong with change if it is in the right direction.” I believe that after our meeting on Friday, January 28 we all feel that we are going to be okay. The meeting was a huge success for us because of how everyone worked together to make it happen.
I would like to thank FCF and Christina for helping put this meeting together. I would also like to thank the adult supporters because without you our youth and young adults wouldn’t have been able to be in Tallahassee on such short notice. I would also like to thank Gia Tutalo-Mote for filming this meeting. We are looking forward to seeing the story on the news and in our emails. Last and the most important thank you must go to each and every young person who was at the table and served as the voice for our whole FYS family. Truly without you there would be no Florida Youth SHINE. Having you at the table to be the first group to meet with Secretary Wilkins was such an honor and privilege and I couldn’t ask for a better team to be a part of.
In the words of Mrs. Wilkins, “The honor was all ours to be able to meet with you.” The meeting was a success and I believe it gave us the opportunity to keep a healthy and growing relationship with DCF. After the meeting Christina had us take our regular pictures, but can you believe we only took two group shots! After we were done Mrs. Wilkins came back into the restaurant to share a heartfelt thank you for what we do. The room was so silent you could hear a pin drop. Her speech was so special and you could tell their time with FYS meant just as much to them as it did to us. Mrs. Wilkins told us she was leaving our meeting inspired.
I can’t say it enough - good job Florida Youth SHINE. We are truly an amazing team.
More than a dozen Florida Youth SHINE (FYS) members from all over the state attended the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Dependency Summit August 24-26, 2010. Melina (another FYS Broward member) and I work up very early on Tuesday, August 24 to travel with FYS Statewide Coordinator, Lindsay Baach, to Orlando for our first conference as FYS members.
What is the Dependency Summit? Great question! I didn’t know about it either until Lindsay called me in July to invite me to attend as a founding member of the FYS Broward chapter. I thought to myself…a chance to travel outside of Broward County, to stand for a cause I believe in…why not? But I quickly learned that the Summit is an annual statewide conference held for all child welfare professionals in Florida. A conference just for the foster care system, I never knew something like this existed! I couldn’t believe is so I had to learn a little more. Starting in August of 1997, DCF hosted this conference annually until 2004. For several years (I was unable to determine why) they chose to host regional conferences until a few years ago DCF reinstated the full statewide conference similar to the one I attended. Now, every year there are workshops, award ceremonies, circuit breakout sessions (where everyone from your area meets and talks), receptions, and impressive speakers all packed into three days.
Imagine this: top DCF officials, CBC staff, service providers, Guadian ad litems, attorneys, advocates, foster parents, judges, child protective investigators, etc. all in a room together sharing experiences, expressing opinions, and voicing concerns. But most importantly, the Summit is an opportunity for everyone to learn how to advance Florida’s child welfare system. Who is missing from this attendance list? Take a good guess. We are – the young adults who have aged out of care along with the youth who are still in care. After all isn’t it all about us? That is where being a member of Florida Youth SHINE came in. I met some other wonderful young adults from all over the state who share my interest in standing up for our cause. Although we were all over 18, FYS has an incredible reputation for being a trained group of advocates giving voice to those who are still in care. “You are a wakeup call to those who deal with children in foster care. To show them who you all really are” said Christina Spudeas (Florida’s Children First Executive Director) when I asked her what impact we had at the Summit. We came prepared and presented ourselves as professionals.
And they really do care what we have to say. I was even asked to speak to a room full of court employees on why it is so important for youth in care to be present at all court hearings related to their case. I was joined by John and Thomas, brothers from Tallahassee, who were barely present throughout their whole dependency case. I never felt so lucky. Even though I didn’t understand what was going on, I was always present at my dependency hearings. And we all agreed, even though we can’t go back and undo our experiences, giving our voice so that you or others who will enter the system after us will have an easier path because we opened the door to you being in court. As a member of FYS, I also had the opportunity to speak with Secretary Sheldon about several other concerns that have come up since we last met with him (normalcy and sibling visits to name a few). And, FYS also presented two workshops called “So you came to take us away, now what?” where a couple of our members along with several other child welfare professionals spoke about their experiences being removed from their families and entering into the foster care system. The room was packed on both days and I overheard so many people recommending our workshop to their peers.
Our time in Orlando wasn’t all work and no play. We had the opportunity to relax one evening at Universal Studios and Island of Adventures. I rode the Spiderman ride, and of course, the brand new Harry Potter ride. Awesome! I spent a lot of my time with John (FYS Tallahassee). We talked a lot about our past experiences in care and he said a lot of the same things I felt about being in care too. He opened my eyes to the fact that so many of us leave care wanting the same thing – to change the system for the better for those will come after us.
Then, it was back to business. My biggest eye opener of the trip came during the first of two district circuit breakout sessions for Broward County. It was there that I heard so many professionals quoting us – Florida Youth SHINE, youth from within the system. That’s when I realized that everyone listened when we spoke. Over the years, I had come to form an opinion that everyone working within the child welfare system went to school to get their degree and worked in the field simply following protocols and earning a paycheck. Seeing them at the Summit has slowly started to change my mind. Now I can safely say that some of the professionals we get to know while we’re in care do work from the heart while others may not. It was overwhelming to listen to their response to our words and I want to let each child welfare professional out there know that you’re passion motivates us to continue educating the community about the other side of the coin.
by Tamarra Lestage, Broward (as published in the ChildNet IL monthly newsletter)
On the 7th of August, several members of the Broward chapter of Florida Youth SHINE (FYS) sat with Secretary Sheldon (the guy in charge of the Department of Children and Families) to discuss changes to the rules that govern the Road to Independence program.As we reviewed the potential changes prior to the meeting we came across a few things that concerned us, including: new rules for how often GED students should take the test each year, how income would be calculated, how often RTI could be reinstated, and how our attendance in school would be measured.At the meeting Secretary Sheldon listened closely to our concerns and asked us what we thought was fair.Understanding that something needed to change, he knew how important it was to get input from youth currently struggling to maintain their RTI stipend and those who had recently turned 23.
When I entered the system seven years ago I never felt like any one cared about what I had to say. When I left the meeting I was on cloud nine knowing my voice finally mattered. Someone actually cared about what I had to say. This is where the Florida Youth SHINE came in.Being a member of FYS gave me the opportunity to stand up and speak my concerns as that aged out youth who is struggling to obtain her G.E.D. while balancing my time and finances.Next time (because there will be a next time), I want you there with me.
Florida Youth SHINE was created in 2005. The idea came from a group of adults who knew that the youth in foster care needed an outlet for their unheard voice.We now have four active chapters throughout the state:Miami/Dade (where it all began), Broward, Palm Beach, and Northeast Florida (Jacksonville).From 2005 to now FYS has tackled a lot of our issues.Most recently we actively advocated to prevent our RTI stipend from being cut from $1,256 to $675.Two of our chapter members here in Broward went to Tallahassee to meet with our legislature to speak on this issue.In the end, the letters that RTI recipients wrote and FYS’s presence at the state capital ensured that our stipend remained the same.
There are moments every day where FYS has the opportunity to stand up and speak out. Florida Youth SHINE is open to youth ages of 13-26 who were ever in foster care.We meet at the FLITE Center the first Monday of every month from 4-5:30pm (unless it is a holiday).We are aware that our lives are busy, so if you cannot attend a meeting keep up with us and share your concerns by visiting us at www.floridayouthshine.org, by becoming a fan on Facebook, or following us on Twitter (FLYouthSHINE).Because if you don’t care for yourself who else will? As FYS Broward founding member, Mez Pierre, says, even if we can’t change what happened to us “at least we can go to sleep knowing there is hope for tomorrow.”So join us and let’s work together to make our system better.
This is it! We're finally on the web. Just one of many steps to come in our journey as Florida Youth SHINE. Thank you to everyone who laid the groundwork for FYS to get to this moment and to all of you who are to come...we can't wait to meet you.
Florida Youth SHINE is more than one person, story, or experience. We are a group of people dedicated to making a difference in the child welfare system. As such, our blog will have more than one author so that our community of voices can come together as one.