Friday, November 21, 2008

Designing a Website for Youth Emancipating From Foster Care

A valued friend of mine recently asked my insights regarding designing a web page for young people in her state who are "aging out" of foster care. Here is what I shared with her...

Many sites for youth include low-quality cartoons and Clip Art, rather than photographs. It's almost as if the website designers think that young adults are like children. I believe that teenagers can see right through that. I certainly could!

It's difficult to emotionally identify with Clip Art. If I were designing a young website, I would either provide photos of real-life foster care alumni and/or artwork drawn by talented young people in and from foster care, like the example above.

I would also make the content relevant to survival. When we first age out of foster care, we need to survive. That's why I like this Aussie site, because the list of topics listed at the top of the page are relevant to young people.

When I first aged out of foster care, there was a cycle that I experienced in my life. And, I see that same cycle playing out in the lives of many young people today:

The first step is: Isolation and Independence: "I can make it, I know I can! And I won't have to depend on anyone else either. The one person that I can count on is me."

The second step is: Hitting the Wall. Not having enough money to buy food. Getting involved in a dysfunctional friend/lover relationship, and feeling trapped and without other viable options. Being temporarily homeless - and wondering if this experience will last forever...

The third step is: Gotta Survive. I cannot express strongly enough how powerful this impulse is. It testifies to the power of human survival. When you are hungry and don't have food, your stomach begins to speak, louder and louder. Its growls are persistent; they stop for a moment, but eventually return.

That third step is is a doorway of entry for people who truly care and want to make a difference: Talk to me when I've hit the wall. Talk to me when I'm broken. Because all I can do at that point is listen - and, in that moment, I am just desperate enough to listen to you....

When young people emancipate from foster care, it's like a fork in the road:
- They can be empowered - or disenfranchised
- They can learn to see themselves as 'agents of change' or 'recipients of (government) services'
- They can feel powerful or powerless over their ultimate destiny

One facet of every youth page should be a call to action, and a reminder of personal accountability. People of all ages respond to the level of expectations.

And there should be opportunities to 'Band Together' to make that positive difference, both in our own live and the lives of others. None of us succeeds or fails alone.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Biological Families and Air Mask Analogy

Does this statement sound familiar?

"In the event of an emergency, please secure your own breathing apparatus first before placing one on the person next to you."

When young people "age out" of foster care without being connected to "forever families," they often have nowhere to turn in times of crisis during young adulthood other than their biological families.

However, the issues that led to their being placed in foster care in the first place, such as abuse or addiction, are often still unresolved.

During the 2007 It's My Life conference, Jenny Vinopal, Correy Kitchens, Nayely Araiza and Cynthia Chavez led a workshop entitled: Biological Parents and College Students from Foster Care: Roles, Relationships, and Recommendations.

This workshop was based on the premise that family-of-origin issues can negatively or positively affect the college success of youth from foster care.

Workshop participants were given puzzle pieces that didn't match - in order to demonstrate the difficulty that is sometimes experienced in reuniting with birth families after aging out of foster care.

One presenter shared that when she was in college, her biological mother found out about the stipend and grants that she was receiving and started relying on her daughter to financially support her.

This issue is all too prevalent in my state.
1. A young woman who feels obligated to financially support her (physically abusive) stepmother because of promise that she made to her father while he was on his deathbed.

2. A young man who gave away the laptop he received to his sister and said that he "lost it."

3. A young woman who keeps taking needy people into her apartment, regardless of their inability and/or unwillingness to pay their share of the rent. This situation reminds me a lot of myself at her age.

What's the Solution?
I am currently working on designing a workshop titled: "When Helping You Is Hurting Me."

- It is vitally important for young people to develop healthy boundaries.
- When young people first age out of care, trying to save everyone around them right away can be like a drowning man trying to keep other people afloat
- Peer support can be helpful; being with other people from a similar background who are working to create a positive life for themselves and who care about each other

- Young people aging out of foster care have a powerful sense of urgency
- If they invest in personal development in order to personally survive, they can achieve the goals they have for their future
- Part of those goals will undoubtedly be wanting to give back.

But trying to give back right away can cost us in the long run.

Message to Survivors of Foster Care: "Please put the air mask on yourself first. It might feel selfish at the time - but it is NOT selfish! You have the passion, power and perseverance to see this through.... but first, you need to SURVIVE.

"It is okay to do that right now. It is okay to heal personally. It is okay to surround yourself with people who believe in you and support you.

Do you know why? Because if only you can make it through this hurdle and build into your own personal financial, emotional and educational resources, you will have SO MUCH MORE to offer others when you are on your feet. "

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Statewide and national conferences are tearing me away...

I apologize to my readers for not posting for a while...

This has been a beautiful, magical, wonderful and amazing year!

It has also been a year during which I have been incredibly busy, and haven't often had the chance to slow down!

In March 2008, I presented at three statewide conferences:

1.) During Youth Advocate Services' third annual conference for private agency foster parents, I and other foster care alumni shared two workshops: Creating a Life Management Plan and Developing the Skills Necessary to Emotional Survival.

2.) The Institute for Human Services is a nonprofit agency that manages the statewide child welfare training in my state. At the their annual training in 2008, I co-presented a workshop titled: Emotional Resiliency: Putting the Pieces Together Before and After Foster Care.

3.) During OACCA's 11th annual conference, young people in and from foster care in my state, and my hero Doris Edelmann and I were both awarded the Virginia Colson award.

In May 2008, I presented at two national conferences:

1.) During the Daniel Memorial Foster Care Conference, I presented a keynote address titled: Life Without Limits: Exceeding Expectations of Former Foster Care Youth, and a workshop on Demystifying Emotional Resiliency.

2.) The 17th annual Colorado Child Welfare conference and the 8th annual Colorado Judicial Issues conference were brought together in one conference in the Colorado Conference on Children and Families. I co-presented two concurrent workshops titled: Demystifying Emotional Resiliency.

On September 2008, the 21st annual National Independent Living conference took place.

I helped with youth pre-conference activities, and presented a keynote address titled: Not Just Beating the Odds, But Changing Them.

I also led a workshop for youth: Sharing Your Story Without Overexposing Yourself, a workshop for adults: Working Together to Empower Youth, and a general session creating FCAA postcards.

During October 2008, I had the privilege of serving on the planning committee and helping to prepare young people in and from foster care for the youth speak-out with legislators at my state's second annual Statewide Independent Living Summit.

I was also able to present two workshops during the It's My Life conference, which was held in Hollywood, California. One was focused on a board game, Real Life 101, that I created for young people preparing to age out of foster care.

I also co-presented a workshop titled Alumni Communities: The Ties That Bind Us Together with Angie Cross and Regeanna Mwansa.

My promise to you is: I have taken a million notes at all of these conferences. I have notes, resources and Best Practices to post in the future.

And I am not going anywhere. My commitment will last as long as I breathe....