Thursday, December 23, 2010

100 Strong for Teens in Foster Care

San Diego businessmen stand '100 Strong' for foster youths
Cadelago, Christopher. SignsOnSanDiego, Dec. 21, 2010.

ENCANTO — After spending more time in group homes than with relatives, this was supposed to be the year — finally — when the boy with blond shaggy hair and a soft spot for animals celebrated the holidays with a new family.

In the company of foster brothers and sisters, maybe he wouldn’t have to worry about being teased and punched. They’d exchange gifts and sit down to a festive dinner. Surrounded by family and friends, he said, maybe he wouldn’t feel so alone.

I “would have been in Carlsbad,” said Nicholas, 13, a resident at the Center for Positive Changes in Spring Valley. “But I got angry and did things I shouldn’t have … and they said I couldn’t live with that family … I worry that I’ll be in the system until I turn 18.”

On Sunday, Nicholas said he was skeptical when operators of the group home promised a holiday party with haircuts, gifts, lunch and the opportunity to network with business leaders for support, internships and eventually jobs.

“I’ve never had this before,” he said, shortly after arriving at Christmas on Imperial Avenue, the inaugural celebration sponsored by 100 Strong, a fledgling community group in southeastern San Diego. “I think that they are using the kindness of their hearts to give us these presents.”

The collective of businessmen has spent months promoting positive change by investing 100 percent — “not 97, or 98, or 99 percent” — of their energy into the community, co-founder Mario Lewis said. They support street fairs for networking, provide job training and mentorship for youths, and, more recently, work to calm the neighborhood after a fatal shooting.

After the slaying of a 25-year-old man in Oak Park, 100 Strong called for a cease-fire, marching across parts of southeastern San Diego and renaming the intersection of Euclid and Imperial avenues “The Four Corners of Life.” (It had long been known as The Four Corners of Death.)

They’ve knocked on 687 doors in five months, organizing community patrols and trying to inspire people to look out for their neighbors. The efforts generated meetings with county health officials to explore new initiatives to fight physiological problems and childhood obesity.

For its inaugural event on Sunday, 100 Strong targeted teens living in foster care, said Lewis, the owner of Imperial Barber Shop on Imperial Avenue near 65th Street.

“There’s Toys for Tots, and there’s Toys for Joy, but what about the kids, the teenagers, who need more than toys?” Lewis said. “Our goal was to find the most needy ones and then stay in touch with them beyond the holidays.”

The daylong event included free haircuts and hairstyling, a photo shoot by Image Seed Photography and lunch by Chef Rick Catering. The African American Genealogy Association, Bay Vista Fund, Ground-Up Youth Foundation and In the Pinc donated gift cards, digital music players, clothing and basketballs.

Michael Norris, a former photojournalist who now mentors young people out of his Image Seed studio, said it was important for foster youths to know that they’re supported. For Giovany, it represented an opportunity to solicit information about studying criminal justice in college for a career in law enforcement.

Giovany, 16, was born in La Puente and grew up in El Monte. Long a product of the foster-care system, he was transferred here when his mother got sober in San Diego County. He moved in with his family two years ago, but soon got into trouble for destroying property, he said.

Now back in a group home, he’s learning how to live independently and invited the opportunity to meet someone who could help down the road. “We have some programs, some support,” he said. “But I didn’t really expect nothing like this.”

Christmas Wish: No California youth sleeping on the streets this winter

Kids shoudn't have to live on the street. Help us bring them inside. Donate.

Covenant House was founded 38 years ago with the mission to help homeless teens and young adults get off the street and into productive lives.

They serve as a refuge to:
  • young people who are running from abuse at home

  • youth who've been kicked out of the house (often because of their sexual orientation)

  • young people who "age out" of the foster care system at age 18 and face the adult world alone.

Covenant House connects these young people with:
  • Shelter, including a transitional housing program

  • Access to medical care

  • Coaching in basic life skills

  • Opportunities to finish high school

  • Resources for job skill development

Staff work with youth on developing a long-term plan for their lives.

Covenant House's Transitional Housing Program: Youth pay rent to Covenant House for their apartment, and after 12-18 months when they graduate from the program, they are given ALL of their rent to help them to put a deposit on an apartment and set up a household.

My Christmas wish: No kid sleeping on the street this winter. Can you help Covenant House make it real? Donate.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Second annual Children Joining Children for Success event

Volunteers turn out to aid foster youth
Garcia, Olivia. Bakersfield Californian, Dec. 20, 2010.

If you wanted to measure Bakersfield's spirit of volunteerism this holiday season, you don't have to look any further than the second annual Children Joining Children for Success foster care event recently held at the Rabobank Arena.

About 600 volunteers turned out to mentor, teach and guide foster children who came out to spend a day of interaction, encouragement and learning.

As a volunteer myself, I couldn't help but feel moved by the turnout of support. There were judges -- about 16 in all -- educators, lawyers, oil engineers, church members, court reporters and other business professionals, as well college and high school students, former foster youth, and tons of others helping in so many different ways. Some mentored children whose ages ranged from six to 17 years old. I met a Bakersfield College nursing student who grew up in foster homes and was there to mentor.

She was a quiet young adult. But her words were packed with power and lessons of survival and perseverance as talked to a group of teenage foster youth about growing up without a father, having a mother who was more focused on her drug fix of the moment and worried more frequently than you can imagine about whether she would eat for the day.

Going into foster care was not ideal, but it gave her the stability she needed so she could focus on creating her own destiny.

Sylvia Mendez, founder of the nonprofit Children Joining Children for Success, hoped that the many former foster youth -- success stories in several ways -- who braved reliving their past would ignite a light of hope in the children. In talking to the event's youth board, Mendez said she discovered a common theme among foster children -- many felt left behind.

"They always felt like they did not belong wherever they went," Mendez said. "No one has talked to them, nurtured them. They didn't have a sense of belonging. All of us want a sense of belonging."

And while the event's goal was to impact foster children, these children did the same to the volunteers.

For instance, many of the professionals who mentored the youth shared their own personal stories of childhood obstacles, revisiting difficult times, and in doing so, the adults underwent a healing process for themselves.

"They went in thinking they could help children, but by sharing and sorting through their own past, they were able to find peace with it," Mendez said. "I had some of the mentors tell me, 'I feel I got just as much or more than the children.' For the mentors, it helped them to place things in their lives -- things that were turbulent at one time -- and come full circle now as adults and professionals by expressing themselves and putting closure to those things that were very painful."

While Mendez was pleased with the event's many successful moments, she wished that more foster children could have benefitted. Surprisingly, she later received calls from foster families who said they were unaware. This year, the event reached about 700 foster children. Last year, it touched 1,500 lives. Mendez said the group works through the county in notifying foster homes and plans to review improvements for next year.

"We could have had more kids," Mendez said. "It was rather frustrating."

One of the group's goals is to provide enrichment that can supplement the mandated foster care services provided by the county. "Mandated services are where we live, food and safety," Mendez said. "Those are a given. But all children need enrichment that could lead them to a path of thriving success."