Perspectives from Former Foster Youth Illuminated in Faith & Contemporary Issues Conversation
By Kevin Clark
Preparing to see youth tokenized, rather than given equity in the public sphere, irks me.
I’ve seen foster youth contribute to the “aesthetic appeal” of forums and conversations, with usually about 30 seconds given to intersperse a hurried timeline of events. Yet, The Forum, a weekly Sunday morning conversation series, in which faith and contemporary issues are discussed, was distinct.
Valentino Luna and Latrenda Leslie, both prominent fixtures within the Foster Youth Museum, from which the topic for this weeks Forum was generated, were given just under a full hour to share their personal experiences, provide recommendations for improving the foster care system, and reflect on how faith and God played a part in their lives. An important conversation ensued throughout the morning, as a crowd of over 40 engaged with former foster youth narratives.
The Reverend’s Christopher Gray Chase and Rebecca Nelson Edwards, along with The Very Reverend Malcolm Clemens Young, graciously guided the conversation about faith and foster care in Gresham Hall of Grace Cathedral. The three reverends, with their white clerical collars symbolizing humility and hope, sat on the stage in the front of the room, with Latrenda and Valentino nestled in between.
The conversation delivered precisely what it said it would; it gave the audience access to foster youth perspectives. After a short round of introductions, the conversation quickly turned towards providing Val and Latrenda time to recount traumatic experiences –like Valentino’s past history as a child sex worker on the streets of Los Angeles – and the triumphs – such as both of the former foster youths’ successful transition into adulthood.
The Reverend Rebecca Edwards, co-director of Braid Mission, made it clear that the Foster Youth Museum was created to memorialize foster youth narratives. “The Foster Youth Museum was compiled by foster youth who wanted to convey their experience in foster care… it’s incredibly powerful.” This power seemed to have arisen out of the conviction and vulnerability that was present in the answers that Valentino and Latrenda gave.
When asked about his relationship with God, Valentino mentioned, “God was always with me, because no matter whose life I came across, they were going to leave. And I still have this amazing connection with God, because he got me through things I never ever believed that I could get through.” He would pray and talk to a statue of the Virgin Mary, and ask for the guidance and support he was not receiving from other sources.
Latrenda mentioned that she likes to believe that God made it possible for her to always have someone, even if it was one person, to support and guide her through her life.
As the conversation proceeded, members of the audience brought forth question cards to the front of the room. Questions such as, “how can religion or spirituality be offered to youth in an ethical and non-pressuring way,” and, “how do we support foster youth between the ages of 15-18” were answered with personal reflections on personal experiences in the foster care system. Latrenda recommended that foster youth be given the right to interview prospective foster parents before being placed, and motioned for more personal choice when the child welfare system recommends mental health treatment.
One of the final questions posed was about the foster youth community after transitioning out of foster care. Valentino mentioned that, “We’re [foster youth] definitely on our own… We’re a stray bullet.” However, Latrenda spoke about how her resourceful character was instrumental in finding a community after she emancipated from the system. “I was fortunate… I was very connected to a lot of foster youth, so I do feel like I have a big foster youth community, or a family as I would call it… I developed a big family.”
The Lost Childhoods exhibit will be on display at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco until November 1st. For more information, contact Jamie Lee Evans at Jamie@calyouthconn.org