Sunday, March 04, 2007

Foster care alumna creates play to challenge the stigma and misconceptions

Listen to the stories we could tell
Former foster child puts her experiences on paper, then on stage to debunk stereotypes about kids in the system.
Phua, Chelsea. Sacramento Bee, March 3, 2007, Metro pg. B1.

Kamika Whetstone, right, who entered foster care when she was only a few months old, has written a play about her experiences, including being taunted at school. "In by Chance, Out by Choice" is being performed at Celebration Arts Theater. The cast includes five current or former foster care children. - Renée C. Byer

Bridjette Clayborn, 20, takes direction while rehearsing a play about life in the foster care system. "It's not sugarcoated," says one young actress, 17, who was removed from an unsafe home and has lived in 24 foster homes. -Renée C. Byer

When her mother went to prison, Mya became a foster child. Shuffled from one foster home to the next before she goes to live with her aunt, Mya compares a foster home to hell and dreads returning to it.

As a young boy, Jamal started dealing drugs. The day he learns his girlfriend is pregnant, a friend tells him his mother died from a drug overdose. He enters the foster care system, which saves him from the street life.

Mya and Jamal are fictional foster youths whose lifelike stories are told in "In by Chance, Out by Choice," a play at the Celebration Arts theater by Kamika Whetstone.

A youth specialist with the San Juan Unified School District, Whetstone, 22, based the play on her experience as a foster youth and that of foster youths she has encountered.

Whetstone, who entered the foster system when she was only a few months old, hopes the play debunks some of the misconceptions about foster youths.

People think foster kids are in the system because they're bad kids, she said. "A lot of times kids end up in the system because of a death in the family or lack of parenting in their family."

Theresa Thurmond, a Sacramento County Independent Living Program coordinator, who helped with the costumes, said she was moved by every rehearsal she saw. "I know they are real stories," she said.

"It's not sugar-coated," said one actress, 17, who was removed from an unsafe and neglectful home and has lived in 24 foster homes since she entered the system in March 2005. "This is what is going on,"she said.

(The Bee does not disclose the identities of youths who are in the foster care system.)

Another 17-year-old involved with the play said Jamal's story resonated with him. He moved to a Sacramento-area group home about a year and a half ago to escape street life in Los Angeles, where a friend who had once saved his life died from a gang shooting. It marked a turning point in his life.

"I decided to stay out of gangs," he said. "I decided that was no good."

Participating in Whetstone's play allows him to do what he likes -- acting. He also said the cast members have grown close. "We're tight," he said.

They helped one another bring real-life emotions to the stage.

At one rehearsal, young actresses struggled to control giggles that interrupted a scene in which one girl has to tell her boyfriend she's pregnant. Drawing on her experience, Tiffani Hagler, 24, said: "When you find out you have a baby, you ain't going to be smiling."

Hagler recalled that she had been confused and lost, and most of all, afraid to tell her mother about her own teen pregnancy.

"I've made some dumb choices," said Hagler, who is now a case manager for Lutheran Social Services. "But life is full of choices. If you choose to do right, it'll happen, but people can't do it without people who care."

It's a sentiment Whetstone shares. She credits her success to a supportive foster family and to Felicia Billoups, who counseled Whetstone when she was a social worker at the Independent Living Program, which helps foster youths transition out of the system.

Billoups, who plays a counselor and grandmother in the production, became a mentor and friend to Whetstone.

In school, Whetstone said, other children would taunt her about being a foster child. She said she fought a lot and had to attend anger-management class.

When Billoups was assigned to oversee her case, the pair got off to a rough start, but Billoups' support, understanding, sincerity and patience helped Whetstone see the possibility of success.

Among her successes was the top grade she received in a playwriting course at Sacramento City College. For "In by Chance," Whetstone envisioned a cast made up of former or current foster care youths, Billoups said. Of the cast, five are current or former foster youths.

Beyond the typical challenges facing an artistic endeavor, the production faced foster-system complications such as precarious and volatile family situations and frequent placement changes that interfered with rehearsals, explained Billoups.

The cast rehearsed most Saturdays for three months. Several original cast members dropped out, and organizers had to recast actors or assign them dual roles.

Whetstone found a generous donor in Casey Family Programs, a national nonprofit that helps foster youths. Whetstone worked for the foundation between 2003 and 2006. Support also came from the Independent Living Program, the San Juan and Sacramento City unified school districts and Celebration Arts.

Billoups said Whetstone's determination and her willingness to listen to advice and use the resources and social services available to foster youths played a major role in her success.

"I look at the challenges that God gives me not as obstacles," Whetstone said, "but as something that would make me stronger."


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