My BEST Kids Journey
My name is Dorian Thomas. I came into BEST Kids Mentoring Program when I was about 16 on the verge of my 17th birthday. At the time I was in foster care and was not having the best time. My social worker connected me to BEST Kids because he felt like I could use the support. As I write this newsletter and reflect on my journey to this point I’m truly indebted to him for connecting with me BEST Kids because being a part of the program has changed my life.
When I came into BEST Kids I was going through a great amount of transition. Due to family conflicts and struggles with my mental health and trying to navigate life post high school, life was very hard at times. Having my first mentor helped me a lot. All things considered he was/is a great guy. I could tell he cared about me. I took issue with some of the times he wasn’t mindful of the words he used towards me, but he went above and beyond to support me. He tried to be a be there fore me through rough times, where in hindsight it is clear that he probably didn’t know how to be a support to me through some of my struggles. We had some fun times together, and to this day I still think about him from time to time and wonder if he’s okay.
After my first match unfortunately ended, I got matched with another gentleman who l got along with well. We had a great dynamic and talked nonstop practically the whole time we were together. Things were going so well that I thought we were going to be in each other’s lives for awhile. But he was supposed to come see me one day I never heard back from him. He is also someone that I wonder about if he’s okay.
After my last match ended the way it did, I honestly thought that I wasn’t going to get another mentor. But right before my 20th birthday I got matched with a new mentor, who I am still matched with to this very day. Having him in my life has done a lot for me. Even when he doesn’t talk much, I can tell he’s trying his best to engage with me and support me however he feels he can. He always leans towards what I want to do which has helped me so much. Too often in my life when I’m out and about I defer to others and don’t prioritize myself enough as I should. There have been nights/days where I was prepared to end my life, but my mentor knew how down I was, so he’d offered to take me out to eat and would encourage me that everything would be okay. Even if I didn’t feel much better afterwards just having that time to get out and not stew in the negative feelings I had in those moments stopped me from going to the point of no return.
While being with BEST Kids I grew from being a bipolar wallflower to a confident young man that can thrive in any situation I’m placed in. I was fortunate enough to be selected to be apart of the first iteration of BEST Kids Youth Advisory Club or YAC ( called the Youth Advisory Council at the time, and quite frankly it’s a better name). With YAC I was able to do meaningful community work with my peers, I went with my supervisor to events to advocate for positive change in the foster care system, and I took part in a documentary that will be used by the organization for years to come.
Throughout my time with BEST Kids, I helped however I can - whether it be with helping set up Peer Groups, to helping with the YAC, to being a support to my fellow BEST Kids family. I am truly thankful to God that this organization was blessed with great people like, my fellow staff members Saad Rehman and Carl Scott, that not only recognized the work I did for BEST Kids but advocated on my behalf to bring me on as a full-time staff member.
I am proud to say that I work for BEST Kids. And I feel so happy being able to show my peers that this is a wonderful organization that will always do their best to support their youth and put them in positions to succeed.
As we approach the end of the year, the BEST Kids team wanted to continue to highlight the people that make our program possible: our mentors and mentees! Despite the pandemic, we were able to catch up with a few of our mentoring matches. In this post we will be highlighting one of our older youth, Cynthia, and her mentee, Andrea. Take a look at our team’s conversation with Cynthia and Andrea below. Thank you so much to Cynthia and Andrea!
BK: Meet Cynthia and Andrea!
C: My name is Cynthia Jackson. I’m 22 years old and I’ve been in foster care since I was 15, shortly after the birth of my daughter. I joined BEST Kids in 2017 during my senior year of high school.
A: My name is Andrea Cilliers. I’m 31 years old and moved to the DC area from Chicago a few years ago. I’d participated in volunteer work prior to moving to DC and knew that I wanted to continue to volunteer when I moved to the area. When I found BEST Kids in 2018 it just felt right. I truly felt it was God leading me here. I was matched with Cynthia shortly after and the rest is history.
BK: Tell us a little about your relationship.
C: I met Miss Andrea in March of 2018. I’d had a mentor with BEST Kids before and was a little unsure about being re-matched. But, meeting Miss Andrea was fun. I’d never had anyone in my life who wanted to just be there for me. Anytime I’m feeling down, need advice, or simply want to talk to someone, I know I can call my mentor and we can talk about anything. Both my mentor and the staff at BEST Kids have helped me prepare for the outside world - from advocating for myself through emancipation to changing placements several times and beyond. While Miss Andrea came into my life as my mentor, over the past two years, she has become a true friend.
A: Like Cynthia said, we’ve been matched since early 2018, so just over two years at this point. My relationship with Cynthia is probably a little bit different than the average BEST Kids’ mentor/mentee relationship. When you think of foster care you think of younger children or teens but Cynthia was 20 years old when we were matched and she’s 22 now. We aren’t that far off in age and she’s always had access to her own phone so we’ve used FaceTime, texts, and calls to connect a lot more than a younger mentee probably would. While being matched with a mentee as old as Cynthia is not exactly, what I expected when I first heard of the program, it’s been amazing. Cynthia has become a staple in my life and someone I can truly call a friend. Our relationship is perfect for us.
BK: What was your favorite activity with your mentor/mentee?
C: Miss Andrea and I went kayaking with Team River Runner at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last year. I’d never been kayaking before and was hesitant to go because I can’t swim. But, Miss Andrea encouraged me and was with me the whole time. Once we got out on the water I ended up having a lot of fun. That was a great experience and I would love to do it again.
A: That’s probably my favorite activity as well! Team River Runner is a great organization and it was good to get out on the water. I find water activities so calming.
BK: How have you grown from being paired with your mentor/mentee?
C: Having a mentor has completely changed my outlook on life because I have someone who feels like a best friend. I wish I had known about mentoring earlier in my life. The support of my mentor and the team at BEST Kids has meant the world to me, and I hope to one-day pass that support along by becoming a foster parent to a child who has had a difficult experience like me.
A: Cynthia had a lot of changes in her life right after we were matched. Our journey to get to know one another took a lot of flexibility. But, getting to know her and watching her advocate for herself and others even when she’s dealing with tough situations has caused me to reflect a lot on myself. I’m in constant awe of her. It’s also great to get out and just have some fun!
BK: How has being a part of BEST Kids impacted you?
C: My journey has not been easy. After entering foster care, I was separated from my siblings, placed in over 10 foster homes, lost my mother at a young age, went through emancipation, and more. Before joining BEST Kids, it was hard for me to open up and talk about some of the experiences I’ve been through. But since being a part of the program and being matched with Miss Andrea, I’ve come a long way. Over the years in the BEST Kids program I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer, try new experiences, feel empowered, advocate for myself and other youth in foster care, make a lifelong friend, and be a part of a loving community.
A: The beautiful thing about meeting Cynthia at this stage in her life is that it has allowed me be truly reflective on my younger years. I’ve been able to relate to Cynthia by thinking of myself at that age and honestly, I don’t think that I would have handled many things as well as Cynthia does. She’s simply amazing. She’s become a good friend and really important person in my life. I cherish our relationship because while I can be there for her, she is also there for me. There are many things that Cynthia has experienced, like motherhood, that I have not yet encountered. Cynthia is full of wisdom and courage and being her mentor pushes me to better just as much as it pushes her. Our relationship is truly a two-way street.
BK: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you and your relationship with your mentor/mentee?
C: I have asthma so during the pandemic a lot of things are on hold for me. But, my mentor has been there for me the whole time. We talk often and I know she’s always there to help me when I need her.
I received COVID assistance through BEST Kids. I’m very grateful for the team’s help. I mostly used that money to pay my phone bill. I’m in the process of looking for a new job and keeping my phone on so that I can get calls for interviews and things has been really important.
A: Thankfully, my relationship with Cynthia has not been impacted drastically. I usually travel a lot for work and being grounded at the moment means that I’ve actually had more time to talk and connect with Cynthia. While we have not been able to do much exploring this year, I’m happy to say that we have remained connected and even got to see each other in person a few times to catch up. We’ve been following social distance guidelines, of course, but have been able to take a few walks, go bowling, and even get a massage.
Though our relationship has not been impacted negatively through COVID, we know that is not the case for many mentoring relationships through BEST Kids. My relationship with Cynthia is a little different because she is a little older and has always has access to a phone. I know that I can always get in touch with her and even before the pandemic we were connected via FaceTime, text, and calls a lot more than matches with younger mentees. I can’t imagine what this would have been like if she did not have access to a phone and I was unable to get in touch with her. Amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is clear, staying connected to others is critically important.
BK: What is one thing you would like to share with anyone considering becoming a BEST Kids mentor or supporter?
C: Without programs like BEST Kids, children and young adults in the foster care system may not have a loving and supportive community. I wish I had known about mentoring earlier in my life because I think it would have really helped with learning healthy coping habits. In the past, I had trouble with my emotions and often let me attitude get the best of me. I can look back now and learn from my behavior and with the help of my mentor, the BEST Kids program, and the Foster Care system I understand more about the power of a positive attitude and how to look at life differently.
The BEST Kids program isn’t just a fun program that provides unique opportunities, it is also important for kids in the foster care system to build trust with an adult figure who is there because they really care. Now that I am aging out of the system I hope to someday be a foster parent to take care of a child who also had a difficult experience like me.
A: BEST Kids is a community of support and love that fosters diversity and inclusion more than any other organization that I’ve been a part of. Becoming a mentor with BEST Kids and befriending Cynthia has been one of the best decisions I’ve made since moving to the DC area. Without a network of support, it would be challenging for anyone to overcome most of life’s obstacles. Being a part of this program connects us as neighbors in this community and speaks life into the idea that no one should have to feel alone because we can truly all benefit from the gifts of others. The reach and impact these programs can have on the youth as well as the volunteers is both tangible and intangible. We can see the transformation of a person’s outlook and circumstance that permeates throughout the rest of their life. I am fortunate to have found this program and to have been matched with Cynthia.
You can help support the mission of BEST Kids and help keep mentor/mentee matches - like Cynthia and Andrea - together through COVID and beyond by giving to BEST Kids today! Give now!
By: Dorian Thomas
All youth need mentors, but foster youth, especially, need mentors. Amidst the COVID-19 crisis and all of the negative impacts it has had on youth in care, BEST Kids, Inc. is finding a way to empower us through life-changing mentoring. I can attest to this myself, being one of the older youth in care that BEST Kids has positively impacted. My name is Dorian Thomas, and I’m 24 years old. I joined BEST Kids in 2015 and am now one of the 150 youth they serve in the DC area. I was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina and was bought to Southeast, DC at just nine months old. I’ve lived here ever since.
My mentor and I meet one-on-one a few times a month. He is a constant part of my support system and I know I can count on him. As a youth in foster care, I’ve had challenges with having consistent, committed adults in my life. I’ve never seen or heard from my biological father a day in my life and my mother has been in and out of my life since I was born. Thankfully, I’ve been unbelievably blessed to have wonderful men, women, and peers that invest tireless amounts of time, love, and effort into my development. My Aunt and Grandmother are the two women who stepped in to raise me in my mother’s absence. All of the adults in my life have contributed to my growth as a man, and now as a father myself.
As a child I dealt with a lot of negativity including bullying, developing an eating disorder, struggling with my sexuality, being in an abusive relationship, dealing with negative police interaction, and being in foster care. Having fun with someone after you have had a hard week, or being able to get out of your neighborhood to gain exposure to something different whether it’s culture, activities, or something else is the kind of stuff that all youth like me need. This is what mentorship does for youth in foster care, and has personally done for me. Mentors serve as a stabilizing force that keep youth in care going until things are better. This type of servanthood and support has transferred over to the way I parent my daughter.
In the absence of my father, I also attribute my style of fatherhood to male figures I watched on TV shows including Terry Crews on Everybody Hates Chris, Naruto’s Jiraiya, and Oscar Proud from The Proud Family. Their mixture of consistency, sternness, care, understanding, resourcefulness, and fun molded my own brand of fatherhood. My daughter is two years old and being her father has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my life. When I first held my daughter, I felt an instant love for her. I couldn’t imagine abandoning her. Being a parent is difficult, but I live for seeing my daughter hit her milestones. I feel the greatest joy when she succeeds. And when she is in pain, I feel that pain too. Fatherhood has its ups and downs, but I could not imagine life without her.
I'm thankful for all of the mentors God placed in my life to support me. Their contributions to my life inspire me to pay it forward. I am hopeful that one day more funding across America will be put towards mentorship for youth in foster care so that all youth can have a mentor. There are more than enough adults in this country for this to happen. If more people are able to see the fulfillment of giving back and uplifting a youth in need, great change will come.
While we wait for that change, there are many ways that you can help youth like me today. Here are a few small things that can make a big impact in the lives of youth in foster care:
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