As I get older, and I’m not that old yet (only 32), I look at the past and think of the journey. I am amazed at how much has been crammed into my adult life and at the same time wishing I would have started some things earlier so I would have made more progress by now. One of my favorite quotes comes to mind by Soren Kierkegaard “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.” I am still making sense of the things that have happened and continue to take place but I rest assured that they will one day fall into place much like the rare, but necessary, perfect Tetris piece.
Somewhere along this grand journey I acquired my teaching certificate, which I used for 1 year of teaching and then fell into the statistical category of the 4 out of 10 teachers who quit after the first year. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the profession. It was the fact that I felt the need to live my life creatively and uniquely. The summers off was a great motivator but I wanted to spend my time writing and inspiring. What I didn’t bargain for was an entirely different campaign of education, an education that took the impossible language of the state and made it understandable to people who just wanted to help. At times I feel as though I am translating from the Microsoft font wingdings.
As someone who came from the state system and has dealt extensively with the system I bring a well-rounded viewpoint to the situation. Co-directing, with my wife, a camp for foster youth and a home for families in need I am constantly at the frontlines of educating people on the complexities of the foster care system. Translating the minutia of state reports into inspiring stories and calls for help when the need is greatest has become my norm. I am always hunting for great stories that emerge from the adversity that faces our youth in foster care. The hardest part of the education campaign is showing people that the same rules don’t apply to foster youth as they do for others. What do I mean by this?
When I am putting on training for our camp I am always very adamant to point out to people who are volunteering for the week, or for an hour, that everything is completely confidential when it comes to these youth. Most people get that piece but when I break the news that pictures cannot be taken and the state will get extremely upset if any pictures of state wards make it onto social media sites, they are let down. This has become a challenge when dealing with well-intentioned adults. But the facts are the facts.
Just this holiday season I helped a group organize a gift buying campaign for foster youth in our area. They purchased nearly 60 gifts for our local kiddos, and it was awesome! They also wanted to cap it off and deliver these gifts personally, but I had to tell them that it was an impossibility for that to happen because of the state ward status of these youth. We cannot just go deliver presents, no matter how well-intentioned it would be. I go on to explain that even when we were foster parents we couldn’t hang pictures of our foster youth in our home because of the state ward status. Most of the time people are understanding but at the same time hurt as I tell them how hard it is for a child to feel included in a family when the system requires such separation from the very family meant to give him/her a family. It is a complicated system and I do understand the focus on keeping information very confidential as we are always striving for reunification, but is there a level of normalcy that we can achieve with these foster youth?
Here again is another opportunity for me to be an educational tool to the general public when it comes to the life of foster children. Not everything is as it seems and we have become accustomed to have the mindset “out of sight, out of mind.” And Foster Children are out of sight. We, as a nation, have 400,000 in foster care today and 100,000 ready to be adopted. I am sure if you subscribe to this magazine you have probably heard those numbers time and time again, but when I educate people and I lay out some of the numbers and statistics you can hear a pin drop. People are perplexed that so many foster youth are right in our own backyard but this is another topic altogether.
Being on the frontlines is a balancing act of sorts because anyone who has worked with the foster care process knows its many and varied flaws, so my duty is to keep people as motivated as possible while shielding them from the cumbersome and exhausting rules the state has in place. What I try to do in every situation is take the excitement that people have for helping and harness that into action. When people contact me with a request to help I try with everything I have to act quickly because you must strike when the iron is hot. People who have worked in this environment for long periods of time tend to get jaded, so I applaud the long term foster parents who have rode out every nuance and shift in the social services system, every new social worker and every new child that enters their home.
This entire situation puts us at an impasse. We have social service policy that is foreign to most of the general public and we have a general public eager to help but unsure of how exactly to get involved. This is where we need educators, innovators and motivators:
Educators are needed to show the public what is going on behind the scenes. Talk about the stories, the statistics that people need to hear to recognize the prevalent problem that is plaguing this country. Education is the base to getting people the information they need to know. A friend of mine once told me that sales were as simple as this: knowing your product and communicating that knowledge to another person. We need those communicators who represent the children who are suffering. People who consume the information and deliver it to people who need to hear the information.
We also need innovators. People who are willing to think abstractly, and dynamically, about the topic of foster care are in short supply. Not only do we need ideas to impact the system but we also need people who can innovatively think of ways to present the mundane information in a way that captivates people. Stories that are told with precision to bring about the humanity in a system that has largely lost touch with its human components.
The final piece is the motivator. These people can set the public on fire about a certain social situation. I’m not speaking of a hashtag campaign but rather someone who can speak to a group and see that group rally to support and change the status quo. Motivators find what people cannot see in themselves and show people how valuable they really are. They take someone who has a glimpse of an idea and push them toward making that glimpse a reality.
As I continue to push for more awareness on the frontlines of this battle I oft look around and see that it is a small company I keep. In smaller settings I like to ask who is, or who has been, a foster parent. Generally the response is meager at best. A recent Barna study showed that only 2% of the general population become foster parents. Quite a small number when considering the vast need we have in this country. What we need are more frontline workers, more people willing to Educate, Innovate and Motivate. So if you are reading this, chances are you already know the need. Now come up to the frontlines and grab a microphone because we are set to make a commotion!