Recently I spent some time back home in my hometown in Hawaii and I decided to go for a walk past my elementary school. As I strolled past the front gate, I was flooded with memories, reminded of relationships with teachers and peers, and reflective of how my time there nurtured who I have become today over 30 years later. For whatever reason the metaphor of “roots” struck me as I continued the rest of my walk that day.
We know that plants thrive the most when planted in fertile soil, given consistent amounts of light and water based on their individual needs, and allowed the freedom to establish vast and strong roots. The same is true for us as people. The strength of the roots we grow through our past experiences helps us to weather storms and shifting environmental changes, and the resources and people around us provide us with the nurturing we need to grow and adapt in order to live healthy and successful lives.
This got me to thinking about the foster care experience that affects over 700 youth right here in DC community each year and hundreds of thousands more throughout our country. How has their ability to thrive been impacted by being uprooted time and time again, being replanted into environments that don’t necessarily provide them with the nurturing that suits them best? How can we expect them to live healthy and successful lives if we aren’t investing in building stronger and more life-sustaining roots they can depend on throughout their lives?
Here at BEST Kids, we recognize that we can’t undo all the harm endured by youth in care, but we can provide youth with nurturing that helps them to grow as best they can regardless of the environments they are planted into. We strive to provide youth with positive memories, relationships, and experiences that help to strengthen their roots to survive through difficult times they are currently facing and that are in store ahead. We also are committed to addressing inequities in our community that perpetuate these harms leading into and during time spent in foster care.
May is National Foster Care Month and my challenge to you is to think about how you can help to build stronger roots for youth in our program and youth in foster care nationwide. You can consider becoming a mentor, a CASA, a foster parent or making a donation to support our work and the work for so many others that specifically serve this population. You can advocate on local, state, and federal levels for equitable housing, health, employment, and education services that reduce the need for foster care on the front end, as well as for legislation that supports higher levels of care and support for youth and families during and after involvement with foster care. We all can do something, whether big or small, to help youth and families in our communities to thrive together and there is no better time to start than now.
A Year of Virtual Mentoring
This month marks a year since the pandemic began, in which we’re still going through. It’s been a year of figuring out zoom meetings, working from home, loss and of course in our case a year of virtual mentoring. Let’s rewind a bit – at this time last year I was at the end of my maternity leave and feeling a mix of emotions. I was anxious on how my work life would look and how as a program we would be able to sustain effective mentoring especially since the “outside world” shut down so quickly. Peer groups quickly canceled along with mentor trainings and we were all forced to figure out our new normal.
While in-person mentoring came to a halt, the many amazing friendships built in our program did not. Mentoring is essential and is an important aspect of so many of our youth’s lives that not going full speed into virtual mentoring wasn’t an option but a necessity. The BEST Kids community all relied on each other to make virtual mentoring work and worthwhile. BEST Kids staff got to work and quickly came up with a list of virtual activities that included activities such as virtual tours of Museums and video/iPhone games for our matches to indulge in. While staff began to create a foundation of what virtual mentoring should look like, our matches immersed in it.
I have to be honest, it was tough in the beginning for a lot of our matches. We had youth who didn’t have consistent Wi-Fi or have laptops to make it easy for them to connect with their mentors but we somehow navigated through all of these challenges. Laptops were donated and resources around our community became available for Wi-Fi services along with other resources for our youth. Our matches knocked down these barriers and awesome moments came out of it. We had matches compete in push up challenges over facetime, matches connecting over the phone almost every day, weekly zoom meetings that were full of fun games, we had matches who discussed Presidential debates over text and we even had new matches start virtually.
Virtual mentoring was different but it’s allowed not only our matches but the BEST Kids program as a whole a moment to explore a different way of connecting. While we can’t wait to see each other’s faces without masks and In-person, I think we can all say we’ve learned a few things during virtual mentoring - and not just how to take ourselves off mute - but lessons we can cherish and grow from. One thing I’ve always known but was made clear this past year is that the BEST Kids community is and continues to be resilient, beyond committed, and creative (virtually and in-person)!
Celebrating Black Success
Many of us who have gone through the traditional educational system in the United States have been conditioned to think about celebrating black success within the confines of 28 days, aka February: Black History Month. And if we’re honest with ourselves, the black success we celebrated usually looked the same year after year after year. I’ll speak for myself here: growing up, Black History Month was always a month full of learning about slavery, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. I can’t say I remember too much else. It wasn’t until college that I was even presented with information about black history that was different.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing the schools I attended or Black History Month. Instead, I hope to get you thinking introspectively about your own lived experience and the systems with which you interact each and every day. How is black success celebrated, if at all? When is it celebrated? Who is being celebrated? With whom are you celebrating?
As a member of the BEST Kids family, I’m not worried about you knowing that black lives matter, but are you living that out? Are you modeling that to your mentee? Maryland MENTOR’s Sadiq Ali published a piece at the beginning of the month with a list of 28 ways to celebrate black history with your mentee. Mentors, I encourage you to check it out and implement these practices into your everyday interactions with your mentee. They are all really fun ideas, in my opinion!
To all BEST Kids supporters, I leave you with this plea: make good trouble (as Former Congressman John Lewis is coined for saying). You have a responsibility to the kids in our program (and all kids) to make individual changes that, collectively, change this world, this country, for the better. Talk about the success of black people, not just when it’s not Black History Month or the trendy thing to do. And ESPECIALLY when no one else is. Change starts now and it starts with you.
January is National Mentoring Month - a very important time at BEST Kids! We take this time to recognize all our dedicated volunteer mentors for the countless hours they spend simply being there for their mentees. Though 'simply being there' doesn't sound like a tall order at first, it is safe to say that a mentor's responsibilities are anything but simple. A BEST Kids mentor is charged with walking alongside their mentee through the mountains and the valleys of life. As with the rest of our world, there were many valleys over this past year for our mentees AND our mentors. In spite of all that was thrown at our country this year, our mentors continued to show up for their mentee. Whether it was the mentor who learned how to engage their mentee virtually or the mentor who attended our Solidarity Sessions to learn more about what it means to be anti-racist, our mentors showed nothing short of dedication, care, and love to their mentees. During this National Mentoring Month, we hope our mentors feel extra love and appreciation from their BEST Kids family!
In a world that has been feeling more divided than ever, and that has forced us to distance in order to preserve our physical safety, finding ways to remain connected has become even more critically important to maintaining our overall health. This connectedness comes in the form of being able to stay connected to the internet and other basic needs during times of extreme economic hardship for so many. We are proud to say that through emergency funding from local foundations, we were able to provide $20,000 of basic needs support to help our mentees and their families to weather these tough times through assistance with tablets, groceries, rent, utilities, and educational support.
This connectedness also comes in the form of feeling the power of relationship with a mentor and with peers who can relate to some of the hardships that have only been intensified this past year. We’ve maintained these critical relationships virtually and safely in person this past year that has opened up a whole new world of mentor and mentee engagement with one another including countless tik tok videos, lots of outdoor time, and a variety of online games. We’ve also continued to offer our Peer Group activities monthly including yoga workshops, virtual cooking classes, art projects and so much more. Our mentors have been able to deliver summer and winter care packages to their mentees filled with activities, books, snacks and more to help brighten the day for each youth in our program. None of this would have been possible without the strong support of the community we are connected to.
Despite all of these positive outcomes, this year has undoubtedly been very stressful for us all. We’ve had to push through significant funding losses, staffing reductions, the trauma of continued racial injustices, and what feels like constant pivoting in order to keep things going strong. One of the things that has kept us going through it all is hope.
There’s a quote about hope from one of my favorite movies, Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” It has been hope that has helped us to continue to innovate and better respond to the changing needs of the youth and families we serve. It has been hope that has had us rethink the way we do thinks and plan ahead strategically for a brighter and more impactful future. And it has been hope that has helped us connect more deeply with those in our BEST Kids family and in our community.
As we close out this memorable year, I urge you all to keep hope forefront and a motivation to continue to care for ourselves and also for others in all we do. We thank you for being part of our family of support and we appreciate how you’ve continued to generate hope for us all over the years, but especially this past year. I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season and let’s all hope that next year will bring us even more to celebrate together.
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