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 Empowering Foster Youth to Succeed

FYES 1 - panel.jpgJust one person. That's what a child in the foster care system needs to succeed, foster youth experts say.

A panel of young adults recently delivered that message and more to an audience of 300 professionals dedicated to ensuring the academic success of youth in foster care at SDCOE's fifth annual Foster Care Education Summit at San Diego State University.

"Nearly every foster youth who has been deemed successful can tell a story of having one person who cared, who stuck around, who turned them around," said Demontray "Dee" Hankins, a featured speaker at the event. "Every one of us who has made it to college, they shine that light on that one person ... point to one person for their success."

Hankins and Jaiya John -- who both spent years in foster care as children and now are inspirational speakers and activists for youth in foster care -- led a mid-day alumni expert roundtable of seven successful young adults who spent time in foster care in San Diego County.

The summit, whose theme this year was "Increasing Student Success: Hitting Our Stride," drew school personnel, such as counselors, psychologists, pupil services administrators, foster youth liaisons, and superintendents, as well as judges, attorneys, education rights workers, caregivers, and court-appointed special advocates. The conference brings together all local agencies responsible for supporting and educating youth in foster care.

"Through youth voices, we expose them to best practices, best supports, and more, so that they could do a better job of supporting and educating foster youth," said conference organizer Michelle Lustig, SDCOE's manager of the Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program. More than 3,800 school-age children are in foster care in San Diego County.

During the alumni roundtable, panelists and youth from the audience said that the little things often make the biggest impact in the lives of children in foster care. Several noted instances of a caring adult taking the time to teach life skills such as how to shop for groceries or pump gas. They shared experiences of waking in a warm bed in a safe home with food to eat and no threat of the adult abandoning them. They encouraged service providers to be genuine in their work.

"As service providers who work with youths who have issues like no income, no family, no parents, do your work sincerely," alumni expert Briana Cueva said. "It's your body language; it's how you respond to the little things."

Cueva, who just earned a master's degree in social work, went further, challenging service providers and teachers to make change, and urging them to call on the expertise of adults like her who found success after a childhood in foster care.

"Ask your students what they need. Do something you have not tried. If you are a service provider and you have power in your role, re-evaluate it," she said. "Results are not happening fast enough and I have social workers who tell me they don't know what to do with difficult kids. I tell them, there's a different way. Use us. We have a lot of information."

Hankins said that while there is no special formula that will solve all of the challenges of serving youth in foster care, a simple approach will make a huge difference.

"If you get nothing else out of today, leave and say, 'I can make a difference by treating foster youth as human beings,' " he said. "You don't have much time to make a difference in someone's life. … Your job isn't to change people. It's to treat people like people and plant seeds. Let foster youth know that they have what it takes to succeed. Let them know about the one time you almost gave up. When they do make it, they will think of you. I think of my vice principal in third grade. She looked at me and said, 'You have potential.' Twenty years later, here I am, making things happen. She just planted a seed. Somebody else grew it."

Lustig said she hopes to continue the summit with outside support. Recent changes at the state level resulted in a decrease in funding for SDCOE's Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program. Under the state Local Control Funding Formula and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, youth in foster care is a specific group. Support for these children's education is more important than ever, she said.

"It is therefore important that this event provide a platform for our community to determine how to keep this momentum going in future years," Lustig said.

FYES 2 - speakers.jpgFeatured Foster Care Education Summit speakers Demontray "Dee" Hankins and Jaiya John with alumni expert Rico Solano (center), who's now a research associate at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.