At the age of 16, before I even had a grasp of what advocacy meant, there was something that continued to weigh heavy on my heart. It would be the first question I asked to all who were around me; How is my mom, can I see her? Little did I know this worry at 16 would become a platform for my advocacy.
After spending three years in foster care, I had been placed in what would be my last placement until I aged out of the system. It was in that last placement where my plea to see my mom finally fell on listening ears. My foster parent equally weighed the pros and cons of me being reconnected with my mom. He understood that, naturally, there would be an issue of safety, but having a connection with my mother was just as important. After years of being in foster care, my foster parent drove me an hour away to the home I was removed from three years prior. We arrived at a driveway that wasn’t drivable and an electric and water-free structure disguised as a home. There, I was able to hug my mom for the first time in three years, with tears running down her face, and my foster parent having a judgment free perspective, I felt at ease.
That pivotable moment and years of pleading sparked a passion for advocacy. It put me on the path to developing and refining advocacy skills for myself over the next couple of years in foster care. I was able to earn myself a seat on the HI H.O.P.E.S. Youth Leadership Board for the state of Hawaii’s Child Welfare System. It was through this new platform of advocacy where I was able to be a part of numerous advocacy projects. This opportunity then led to a career in promoting advocacy. I have had the privilege of joining the initiative, Na Kama a Haloa, which focuses on connecting Native Hawaiian children and youth in the foster care system to healthy, supportive, and enriching relationships. It was through this work that I was able to use my experience with my mom to help advocate for the importance of keeping biological parents and youth in care connected. Through that effort, a video was created that has not only circulated statewide but nationally. In this video, my mom, my foster parent, and I shared our story of being reconnected and our definition of family. We highlighted the importance of child welfare and foster parents embracing biological parents and honoring those bonds with their children.
Now, at twenty two, I am employed at a non-profit that values advocacy and the voices of those with lived experience in the Child Welfare System. I now have the great honor of training young people on how important their voices are and how they can advocate for themselves while being in foster care. I also train service providers on how to support young people in their self-advocacy journeys. Looking back, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that pleading for my voice to be heard at sixteen would spark a passion and influence my career path and purpose moving forward in my life.
Melissa Mayo, at 22 years old is an alumnus of foster care. She had spent five years in the foster care system and is now the President of the HI H.O.P.E.S. Youth Leadership Board in East Hawaii. Melissa is also a current Jim Casey Young Fellow with the Jim Casey Initiative and an Advisory Council member of the National Association of Counsel for Children. She has been an ambitious leader with a passion for creating positive change and empowering her peers in the Child Welfare System. Melissa also uses her advocacy work in her role as the Pono Process lead at EPIC ‘Ohana Inc., promoting youth self-advocacy and assuring the rights of children and youth are being honored and upheld while in foster care. In addition to Melissa’s advocacy work, she is currently working on obtaining her bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Administration of Justice at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. She is also an adoptive mom to her beautiful niece.