Perspectives from Former Foster Youth Illuminated in Faith & Contemporary Issues Conversation

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.

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From the Left: The Reverend Chris Chase, The Very Reverend Malcolm Clemens Young, Valentino Luna, Latrenda Leslie, and The Reverend Rebecca Nelson after the conversation.

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.

Valentino Luna, Jamie Lee Evans, and Latrenda Leslie
Valentino Luna, Jamie Lee Evans (co-director of Foster Youth Museum), and Latrenda Leslie

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

A Sacred Moment for Foster Youth

By Rebecca Edwards, co-director BRAID Mission

Braid was founded in the fall of 2014 as a brand-new ministry of the Episcopal Church, with a unique mission – reaching out to youth in foster care. As we have confessed many times over the past year, however, Chris and I really had no idea what we were doing.

The Revs. Rebecca Edwards & Christopher Chase are Co-directors of Braid Mission
The Revs. Rebecca Edwards & Christopher Chase are Co-directors of Braid Mission

We knew that the needs of foster youth were great, but not because we were experts in foster care. We knew that our church needed to explore how to interact with the world in dramatically different ways, but not because we had any sort of model that inspired or guided us. And we knew that God had put a crazy call in our hearts to start something new that would braid together the church and the world.

And so, as we began to immerse ourselves in the world of foster care, we ended up at a California Youth Connection (CYC) fundraising event, which included a display of Lost Childhoods, which is traveling exhibition of Foster Youth Museum. It took less than half an hour to fully peruse the displays, but we emerged with a much deeper and more emotional understanding of the mission we had unwittingly undertaken. Lost Childhoods made clear to us in very tangible ways how much can be lost and broken in the experience of foster care, and how many ways there are to help.

If It’s Broke, Fix It
You see, before we began this work Chris and I had a naive belief that the foster system worked. We assumed that if something in our culture was truly broken, we would have heard about it. Foster Youth Museum turned that assumption on its head, by revealing to us the countless cracks in the system where youth have watched their physical and emotional needs fall through.

Over the past year, as we have spoken about the challenges foster youth face, we have discovered that most people share our old assumption. In the Bay Area, if people have heard about the needs of foster youth, it’s through Sleep Train commercials, which spread the message that anyone can help a foster child by donating pajamas, shoes, school supplies, and other essentials. These items can help foster youth feel more normal, but unfortunately their needs are much, much deeper.

The good news is that we have yet to meet someone whose heart has not been stirred by the real stories of foster youth:  The stories of youth who have been in 50 placements in 18 years; the stories of youth who have been in four schools in one year; the stories of youth who have been deeply wounded by being separated from their birth parents. When people hear these real stories – the kinds of stories the Foster Youth Museum has masterfully curated in Lost Childhoods – people ask, “How can I help?”

Braid’s Community for Foster YouthBraid Mission Logo
At Braid, we have built a mentoring program for foster youth that is one answer to that question. Through our immersion in the foster care system over the past year, we learned from former foster youth that what they often missed was community – specifically, adults who have no power in the system, no official role to play in determining their home or school placement or their permanent record, who show up just because they care.

Braid’s mentoring program surrounds youth with community before they face the pressures of aging out of the foster system. Each young person is matched with his or her own team of three mentors, and they meet weekly with at least two of those mentors to do something fun. Our mentors do not have to be people of faith – in fact, many of them are not. They just have to be willing to be a consistent and loving presence in a young person’s life for one hour a week.

A Sacred Moment for Foster Youth
We have recruited wonderful mentors to begin this program, and yet we still find that most people we encounter have no idea how many foster youth right here in San Francisco are suffering, lonely, and afraid. We have often wished we could share the real stories of foster youth with a much wider audience, which is how the idea of bringing Foster Youth Museum’s Lost Childhoods exhibition to Grace Cathedral was born.

The cathedral has been an iconic landmark in San Francisco for decades, and every week it welcomes hundreds of visitors from around the world. Our hope is that everyone who comes through the doors of the cathedral next month leaves with much greater awareness of the needs of foster youth and how individuals can help in their community.

Grace Cathedral
Grace Cathedral with Rebecca Nestle, Cultural Program Manager, Grace Cathedral; Jeanie Yoon, Co-director of Foster Youth Museum; The Revs. Christopher Chase & Rebecca Edwards, Co-directors of Braid Mission, The Rev. Andy Lobban, Minor Canon at Grace Cathedral; Ray Bussolari, Guest Curator

Our greater hope is that Lost Childhoods will inspire those who already spend a good deal of time within the doors of Grace Cathedral and all the other churches it represents. We have found that The Episcopal Church has a good reputation in San Francisco for getting outside its walls in service to others, but we can always do better. Many times in the last year we have heard from social workers and directors of nonprofits that they have been “waiting for the church to show up.” It is past time for people of faith to respond with vigor and action to help foster youth, and we want The Episcopal Church to lead the way.

We believe that these stories, images and artifacts in Foster Youth Museum are sacred, as sacred as anything that has ever happened inside Grace Cathedral. It is our honor to sponsor the exhibition of Lost Childhoods and we know the sacred artifacts will be a beacon of inspiration and hope for all who encounter them.

Please join us at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, October 15 – November 1, to view Lost Childhoods, the art, artifacts, and video portraits of youth in foster care.

Braid Mission is a spiritual community that brings together the young, entrepreneurial spirit of San Francisco with the needs of youth whose life experience has included the challenge of being in foster care. The Revs. Christopher Chase and Rebecca Edwards are co-directors. As a ministry of the Episcopal Church, Braid is committed to social justice and ethics, and is generously sponsoring the Lost Childhoods exhibition at Grace Cathedral.

Foster Youth Museum Presents Lost Childhoods Exhibition at Grace Cathedral

Foster Youth Museum Presents Lost Childhoods Exhibition at Grace Cathedral

October 15 – November 1, 2015
Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street, San Francisco
Open Daily, 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM

Foster Youth Museum presents its groundbreaking exhibit about youth experiences in foster care at the historic Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Through photos, donated objects, video portraits, and foster youth art, Lost Childhoods tells the story of loss and powerlessness – and the human capacity for resilience and connection.

FYM at Grace PostcardVisitors to Grace Cathedral may be surprised by the artifacts that youth have chosen to save and share, from the hefty case reports that follow foster youth from placement to placement, to letters from incarcerated loved ones. In the words of museum contributor, Sophia Herman, “It’s so important for foster youth to have documentation of their experiences. Lost Childhoods validates our existence.”

The museum highlights several themes that characterize experiences in foster care, including loss, developmental disruption, institutionalization, and powerlessness. The museum does not stop there, however, and also highlights the remarkable stories of perseverance, achievement, and connection. “Some of the objects reveal the role of faith in perseverance,” says Jamie Lee Evans, co-director of Foster Youth Museum. “We are proud to be partnering with Braid Mission and Grace Cathedral on this exhibition because communities of faith can play such an important role in supporting foster youth.”

The Braid Mission, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of California and lead sponsor of the exhibition, is a spiritual community that brings together the young, entrepreneurial spirit of San Francisco with the needs of youth whose life experience has included the challenge of being in foster care. In the words of The Reverend Rebecca Edwards, ““At Braid, it is our fundamental belief that divine love heals wounds and all of us are channels of that love. Whether or not you describe yourself as a person of faith, everyone has the power to bring healing love to a foster child.”

Foster Youth Museum was conceived by a group of former foster youth who wanted to share their experiences, so people could better understand the needs of foster youth in their community. In 2012, there were 51,800 children under the age of 18, in California, living in foster care. Approximately 4,000 foster youth “age out” of care each year with insufficient housing, support, education, wellness, and resources.[1]

Lost Childhoods is curated by Ray Bussolari and a team of exhibition collaborators, all of whom are former foster youth. The exhibit features more than 50 items, and is made possible with the generous support of Braid Mission, Grace Cathedral, the Diocese of California, Zellerbach Family Foundation, and Stuart Foundation.

Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street, San Francisco, CA, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

[1] http://www.casey.org/media/California_SIFS_2014_SC2.pdf