Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Things that add up little by little, but make me sad all at once

Tonight, a wave of sadness swept unexpectedly up the banks of my emotional shore and pulled me in with its undertow.

And so, I asked myself: "What's beneath the waves?"

1. I'm sad that there isn't going to be a Casey "It's My Life" conference this year. Every year, this conference revitalizes the hearts and rekindles the energy of foster care youth, alumni and allies.

We need it more this year than ever: Young people are "aging out" of foster care in the midst of a recession.

Ohio folks have been planning for the 2009 IML conference ever since the 2008 one.

FCAA member Ryan Dollinger and I had hoped to co-present a "When Helping You Is Hurting Me" workshop about boundaries with bio-family members and/or when helping other foster care youth/alumni.

My logical mind knows that the only thing to do is:
- Figure out another way to compile and share this information by other means
- Channel my energies into Ohio conferences this year
- Google my little librarian heart out and find out some other national conferences to present at...

And I will DO these things.

But there is something about the Casey "It's My Life" conference that is incredibly special and incredibly unique, and the fact that it's not going to take place this year is just such a shame.

2. I'm sad that after all this time, we still have such a long way to go.

I gotta admit... I am flat-out baffled by the decisions and practices of some organizations:

- Why opt for token involvement of foster care youth/alumni rather than empowering them as current and future leaders?

- Why invite youth to go to DC, without providing a stipend that is sufficient to cover their meals?

- Why put young people in the spotlight to showcase a program, without taking the time to realize that:

a. They are homeless
b. They are in deep emotional pain over something that happened during the event
c. They are struggling (at school, at work, in some other area of their life)

3. I'm sad because I wonder: Is what I do ever going to be enough?

That's the real question beneath all of this.... isn't it?

As a leader, I sometimes feel like Sisyphus rolling an enormous rock up a mountain, only to see it roll back down on its own weight.

I volunteer in my position for the Ohio chapter of FCAA. I have a full-time job that I need to be faithful (and, in this economy, incredibly productive and proactive) in. I have a marriage to maintain and two stepdaughters whom I love, love, love because they hang the moon.

I need to juggle these things. How do I do this?

Well, so far I:
- Take/make phone calls in my car while I'm driving to/from work
- Schedule foster care events on my days off work (or work extra days to make up for them)
- Spend every lunch hour at work (no kidding) working on some aspect of foster care reform

So far it has worked out:
- I was rated "Distinguished" two years in a row at work (highest rating a person can receive)
- I'm still married, love the man, and we are currently refinancing our house
- My stepdaughters hung the moon at our house last weekend and shared songs and skits (Flight of the Conchords, not theirs) last weekend.

But it has to KEEP working because:
- I remember when I first "aged out" of foster care, and what it was like to have unmet needs, but didn't want to overburden people

- I remember making sure I alternated who I asked for help about things, because when you don't belong to anyone, you have to be careful who you ask for help because they will get tired of hearing from you.

- Which is why it breaks my heart that there are foster care youth and alumni all over my state today who are facing the world (in a recession) feeling this degree of being alone.

- Which means that TODAY I must maintain a healthy level of emotional reserves so that I can be there for them when I can, refer them when I can't, and still be there for the family I've built for myself today.

- Or else I WILL be pulled in by the undertow - and I can't allow that to happen, because then I won't be helpful to anybody.

When I wake up tomorrow morning, I will have bounced back from this. I know this about myself.

- Because the work is WORTH it
- Because everything that we are doing now can and WILL make a difference

But I share this internal struggle because... we all have them. Let's admit it. And just as our scars remind us that the past was real, our struggles remind us that the work we do is worth it.

Comic from my favorite online artist, Ozge, who captures the beauty and wisdom of Ordinary Things:

Child Welfare Training Survey

One of the projects that I am working on right now is a national survey of programs that enlist foster care youth and alumni as child welfare trainers. Ohio's statewide child welfare training system would like to better incorporate the voices of first-hand experience into child welfare training in our state.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Lisa’s Top 10 Rules for Life – What are YOURS?

One of the reasons that I read so much is because I am a firm believer that no one lives for any number of years on this revolving planet we call Earth without learning SOMETHING!

Here are my Top 10 Rules for Life: (and I hope to hear yours soon!)

1.) Carry yourself with the same caliber of respect with which you would like to be treated. Posture straight. Shoulders back. Head held high.

It always breaks my heart when I see a young lady who carries herself as if she isn’t worth very much. No bra. Stretched-out T-shirt. Chin tucked into chest with face turned down, as if out of some feeling of unworthiness or shame.

That kind of behavior tends to be a magnet for wolves in this world – and we need to keep the wolves at bay. We are worth more than to be used and exploited by other people.

2.) Stand up for what is right. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated by people. Treat every person with respect, but don’t allow yourself to be cowed by the loudest-speaking person at the table. Maybe they are right – or maybe they are wrong. Trust your own judgment.

3.) If you are wrong, admit it – and try to do better.

If (when?) you wrong someone, apologize immediately, as soon as you are aware that you have wronged them. Being quick in apology and not repeating the mistake is the next best thing to not making the mistake at all.

4.) If you aren’t wrong, don’t say that you are. (Please see #2)

5.) Be the reliable person in someone else’s life that you wish you had during that time when you needed it most.

6.) Find out about what you don’t know. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for not knowing the things that no one ever told you.

There is no “common sense.” There is only what somebody else either learned from experience, saw from example, or heard from what their parents told them.

7.) Don’t take yourself too seriously. We all need to laugh at ourselves once in a while.

8.) Celebrate being a part of each day. Wear bright colors. Enter a room with bright eyes and a friendly smile.

We MADE it! Through the water, wind and fire. Through the wilderness and abyss of emptiness and loneliness. Through the time in our lives when deep in our hearts we knew that no one cared.

We made it! And we can help others make it! And that is the reason enough for celebration each day.

9.) Remind the people you love how much you love them. Yeah, if it’s a dating thing or a flirting thing, maybe you’ve got to keep it cool but in real-life long-term relationships, it’s OKAY to admit that: “Hey, we kinda-sorta love each other!”

10.) Leave a life legacy that you can be proud of. Everyone makes history. Think about how you want to make yours.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Let Me Tell You My Story, One Piece At A Time

I've been asked to moderate a youth panel at an upcoming conference. One thing that is very important to me is to follow Michael Sanders' example, in terms of equipping and preparing youth participants.

Therefore, I am doing my best to:
- Ideally meet with youth panel members ahead of time
- If not, most definitely talk with them on the phone

Youth panel members should be given the chance to review the questions and reflect upon them beforehand, so that they won't be blind-sighted by the unexpected.

If they have time to plan for the questions, they can decide which piece of their story they wish to share.

And if I know what matters to each young person, as the moderator, I can ask questions that help frame the issues that they want the audience to know about...

Don't Ask Me To Tell You My Whole Story
Part of the reason that I lead Strategic Sharing workshops today is because there were times in my college life when I over-shared about my personal experiences:

- When I was on a summer missions trip, and was asked each week to give my "testimony."
- In editorials for my college newspaper.
- Even on my first date with my future husband! (why I didn't scare that poor guy away with what I told him, I will never know!)

Respect for Emotional Boundaries of Foster Care Alumni
I still remember a 16-year-old girl at the OFCA conference, who responded to the "Boundaries" section of my workshop by pointing out that foster care doesn't promote healthy boundaries:

"Whenever I meet a new social worker, they ask me to tell them my whole life story. I don't know anything about them!"

After we age out of foster care, that attitude can still persist.

I wonder if we should develop a workshop or talking points for allies about not asking prying questions of adult foster care alumni?

Something like:
- "Talk to me about the ISSUES, and please allow me to share bits and pieces of my experience as they pertain to those issues, over time."
- "Please allow my relationship with you to progress gradually."

Has anyone else developed anything like that?

When I Tell You the Details, I Relive the Pain
It just seems like more people should GET that. When they ask prying, painful questions, it's not malice - it's more like ignorance.

I used to wonder: "Why don't they know?" But I guess they just don't know... can't understand how, for a foster care alum in college, simple questions like, "Where are you planning to spend the holidays?" or "My mom is such a nag! Is YOUR mom like that?" can unearth such pain.

Maybe it would help to map it out for them?

Traumatic memories are stored and processed differently than memories of ordinary events. "Normal" memories are encoded verbally, and thereby can be verbally communicated to others afterwards. But traumatic memories are experienced as emotions, sensations and physical states.

The trauma survivor faces an odd contradiction. The memories are so vivid and rich with emotional and sensory details. Yet it's difficult to put words to these experiences, to make cognitive sense out of them.

In the long-term, it is healthy to put words to these images and emotions. But trying to rush that process is very dangerous -- this is my undergrad degree in counseling talking here -- because it's important to give survivors TIME to heal in these areas...

A young adult who has just "aged out" of foster care hasn't had that time yet.

Giving Away Your Whole Story At Once Can Be Like:
- Giving away your strength: Information is power. For the trauma survivor, information is also pain. Samson's curls fall shorn to the ground and weakness overtakes him...

- An unexpected question can strip you emotionally, just like an unexpected touch. Especially if, within the context, you feel obligated to respond

- The Morning After: A person might flee after a one-night stand, because the intimacy came too soon. It's the same thing with emotional sharing. It can feel icky and uncomfortable the next day.

When I Meet Other Foster Care Alumni
I ask them what issues matter most to them. I focus on the ISSUES because that is safer - and can be very healing and empowering. I offer them opportunities to be a part of creating positive change.

I am open to the fact that they might share personal things with me, and if/when they do, I will respond in the very best way I know how to respond.

What do YOU think about this? How have you responded if/when you were blind-sighted by questions you didn't expect? How do you work today to make sure that today's foster care youth and alumni are prepared before public speaking?