“Foster care is an imperfect solution to an impossible problem.” Those words from Lived Experience Expert, Gaelin Elmore, resonated with me as I attended the 2022 Texas Child Care Administrators Conference. Gaelin spoke about the importance of building a sense of belonging to unlock the potential of youth involved in the foster care system. Living in survival mode, they have spent most of their lives not knowing what it feels like to be part of a family or community.
Belonging is a human need. We all long to connect with others and feel accepted. Belonging creates a sense of purpose and meaning. Studies have shown it also leads to happiness, improved physical and mental health, life satisfaction, and even longer life. For youth involved in the foster care system, a sense of belonging can reduce levels of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.
So how can we help youth in the foster care system feel like they belong?
- Encourage them to participate in school and extra-curricular activities
- Get them engaged in cultural, religious, and community groups
- Support their friendships with peers and connections with relatives
- Build authentic relationships with the youth whom you serve
- Develop local youth advocacy councils
A sense of belonging is the “secret sauce” behind the success of One Voice Impact’s youth voice initiative. We intentionally create a community for our youth by giving them branded shirts to wear to meetings, checking in on them between meetings, providing support during challenging times, and celebrating advocacy wins together.
In our year-end survey, youth shared the following testimonials:
“I feel that OVI has provided me with opportunities to share my story in a healthy and safe manner while also making friends who can relate to what I’ve been through. OVI also has allowed me to attend conferences or meetings where my voice was heard and valued which could potentially lead to positive changes.”
“Being a part of OVI is an amazing opportunity to own your story, your truth. It feels good to know you positively impacted someone by being a voice for those who may not have the confidence to speak out. It takes true resilience to accept and walk in an identity knowing all you have endured.”
Dr. Elizabeth Wynter is a rainmaker for transition-age foster youth. Wynter’s work in this arena has helped launch a national youth voice movement, drive policy and practice improvements, and better equip system professionals and foster youth with tools and knowledge to achieve self-sufficiency.
Wynter believes that foster youth should be valued as organizational assets. By using a pluralistic approach in which youth and systems professionals share control in decision-making, program planning and implementation, and advocacy, a dual impact of improved outcomes for transitioning youth and a more responsive child welfare system can be realized.
As the Executive Director of the Selfless Love Foundation, Wynter has led the state of Florida in making youth engagement a centerpiece of conversation. With more than two decades of child welfare experience, an unwavering commitment to transforming the system, and an ineffable capacity to challenge the status quo, Wynter is a catalyst for change.
Selfless Love Foundation’s youth voice initiative, One Voice Impact (OVI), provides current and former foster youth opportunities to develop skills for leadership and life, advocate for changes to policy and join a network of youth leaders across the state of Florida.