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."

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