Monday, August 04, 2008

California Youth Connection definitely deserves this award

Ex-foster kids use experience to help system
Fisher, Patty. Mercury News, July 30, 2008.

Lobbyists and "special interests" have a pretty bad reputation these days. Politicians do their best to distance themselves from them, at least in public.

But not all lobbyists are out to get tax breaks for bigwigs. And some special-interest groups really are special.

That's why I was delighted to learn that the California Youth Connection, an organization that has been banging on doors in Sacramento for 20 years, demanding reform for the foster care system, is receiving a prestigious award today from the James Irvine Foundation. The 2008 Leadership Award recognizes Californians who have successfully tackled some of the state's most critical challenges, from poverty to health care to the environment.

Experience and reform
What's particularly special about CYC is that it's run for and by young people who grew up in foster care. They know what it's like to move from foster home to foster home, never staying in one school long enough to earn credits. Because of the state's outdated bureaucracy, they had to get court permission to go to slumber parties or get a driver's license. At age 18, they were tossed into the world without money or a place to live.

By telling their personal stories to lawmakers, reporters and community groups, former foster kids persuaded the state to reform the system so the next generation of kids taken from abusive parents would have it a bit easier.

CYC has helped pass 14 major pieces of legislation providing foster youth with resources for college, job training, affordable housing and health care.

Today CYC (www.calyouthconn.org) has about 500 active members across the state. It has been so successful that it's about to go national. A new organization, called the National Foster Youth Action Network, will replicate its training and advocacy efforts in other states.

Tiffany Johnson was a teenager in Santa Clara County foster care 16 years ago when she joined CYC.

"I had three younger sisters growing up in the system," she said. "My sole reason for getting involved was to improve things for them."

Largely through the efforts of CYC, California now requires social workers to make sure siblings in foster care visit one another and can stay in touch if they are adopted by separate families. That was important to Johnson.

Eventually she moved from volunteer to employee. When I met her eight years ago, she was the 24-year-old communications director. She was always so friendly and helpful, so obviously passionate about her cause.

Moving up
Three years ago she was named associate director of the organization, which is based in San Francisco. She will share the Leadership Award with executive director Janet Knipe and board president Tonya Hightower. It comes with a $125,000 grant, which the organization can put to good use.

"It was pretty exciting to be acknowledged for the work we do because it's hard work," Johnson said.

Indeed. Knocking on doors in Sacramento, endlessly fundraising, organizing CYC chapters throughout the state, training young people in public policy and advocacy. Always pushing, pushing for reform.

I asked her how her younger sisters were doing. Has her work at CYC really made a difference in their lives?

"Oh yes!" she said. She remembers when she turned 18 and had to go to a county office and fill out a packet full of forms to get health insurance through MediCal.

"It was supposed to be a seamless transition but, of course, it wasn't."

CYC lobbied the state to cut the red tape. So when Johnson's little sister turned 18, she got a letter in the mail saying she was covered. Simple as that.

"I thought: Wow. It worked. Imagine that."

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