It has been one year since I joined the BEST Kids team and it has been an incredible journey ever since. I feel very fortunate to work with brilliant youth and committed mentors. Looking back on just this year, I am astounded at what we have gone through as a community. However, I am even more impressed by the collective effort in support of the BEST Kids mission. The global pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on countless lives and especially on the lives of our young people. Yet despite these difficulties, BEST Kids mentors have been unwavering in their commitment to our youth.
During these uncertain times, it is more important than ever for our young people to have a mentor they can turn to. Many of our youth are facing an array of problems that have been compounded by COVID, including the deficiencies of distance learning, isolation from peers, and complications at home. No mentor can solve these issues, nor should they be expected to, but the consistent presence of a mentor has been an immense source of relief for our mentees. Our youth often feel more confident in their ability to deal with the numerous obstacles in their path when they have an adult friend walking with them.
Supporting mentors and mentees has reinforced my conviction in the transformative power of mentorship to bolster the human spirit. The BEST Kids community has confronted challenges of our time with courage, from extending additional assistance to families in response to COVID, to engaging in meaningful conversations about race. I have no doubt our community will continue to work confidently for our youth despite the troubles that may arise. And with ART of the Matter around the corner, we have a wonderful opportunity to invite our family, friends, and professional networks to share in the joy of mentoring youth in foster care.
In times of crisis we often find ourselves connecting with and relying on loved ones for moral support and a safe place to stay. As many of us are exploring working remotely, perhaps for the first time, some have elected to ride out this storm with their families whether they are a town away, a state away or even on the other side of the country. We've began connecting with family, friends and coworkers virtually as we all try to find a new sense of normal. Despite all of this I can't help wondering what normal looks like for our youth right now.
The sad truth is that social distancing has left kids in foster care almost completely socially isolated. The luxuries we've come to count on are sources of security our youth have been left without. By it's very nature, foster care can strip someone of their sense of hope, identity and security just by removing them from their home and families. The situation we are facing and the grim realities our youth are facing could not be more polar opposites.
We can quarantine with our families but our youth haven't been able to visit their loved ones. Too often our youth are only able to visit their loved ones once a month but due to risk of infection many family visits have been postponed indefinitely.
Many of us have a place to live but far too many youth in foster care don't have a place to call home. There's a shortage of foster placements leaving our most vulnerable youth without somewhere to feel safe and secure.
We've adapted to Facetime meetings and zoom but the connections our youth have built with others have been suffering. With lower rates of access to technology it has been more difficult for our youth to attend school, connect with friends and find other activities that could instill a sense of normality.
On top of all of this, now even their identity is under attack. 89% of the youth in DC foster care are African American and the global protests for Black Lives Matter and against police brutality have left many wondering what it means to be a person of color in this country.
Even though we have not been able to see our kids, they have been at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. BEST Kids has been working from the start of the pandemic to make sure that our youth feel protected, connected and represented. We have delivered care packages, distributed web accessible devices, developed remote mentoring protocols, and have brought together DC's best experts to speak with our kids about what these protests mean and what they can do about it themselves.
While mentoring is just one method of trying to address a much bigger issue, this global pandemic has laid bare the systemic issues that have allowed so many youth in foster to slip through the cracks. And like any good mentor, we may not have the capacity to fix everything but we can do our best to make sure our youth feel empowered during a time where so many things feel outside of our control.
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:
It is evident that we are living in a world that is ever changing. Our immediate response and attention is required in order for us to manage the change that so easily besets us. This week, BEST Kids staff participated in a team building exercise to discuss how we manage change during transition. Two of the quotes that were a part of our discussion were as follows:
“The only thing that is constant is change.” – Hereclitus (Greek Philosopher)
“Organizations don’t change, people do.” – Unknown
Think about that for a moment. Change is something that will happen. We can’t avoid it, and we certainly shouldn’t ignore it. With all that is going in our nation and globe to include the COVID pandemic, the revolutionary protests in support of Black lives, and the magnified attention on racial injustice in our country, we, the staff and leadership at BEST Kids, are taking the time and opportunity to be very reflective and introspective. We are taking an inward look at the way we do business, and to reassess the strategies and policies we have in place that directly impact and influence the lives of the youth that we serve.
We began to ask ourselves these questions:
Again, the quote says “organizations don’t change, people do.” Well, the people of BEST Kids extends beyond our staff and leadership. The people also include YOU, our supporters and stakeholders. How you show up during these times matters too. I’d like to challenge us all to be very reflective and introspective during these times; to ask ourselves the questions above; and to determine how we might actively be a part of the process of change in a way that continues to empower the youth that we serve and care about, and to help build each other up during these times.
I’ll end with this. Being a part of change does not always mean easy. It is often not void of pain. It requires strength, tenacity, and courage and most often comes with sacrifice. The upside is that we don’t have to go it alone. We are in this TOGETHER! As I encouraged our staff in our discussion earlier this week, I’ll do the same here - We should not just go through change, but we should GROW through it. I hope that you all will join us in this challenge. And my hope and my prayer for each of you is that you will be all the better because of your decision to be the change you want to see.
Expanding Youth Voice with the Youth Advisory Counci
“Youth Voice is nothing without adult action,” stated Dorian Thomas as he spoke on behalf of the Youth Advisory Council (YAC) at a town hall meeting. The significance of that quote aligns with the mission of BEST Kids Mentoring program which is to empower youth in foster care to build better futures, one child at a time.
At BEST Kids we seek to help our youth raise their voices as a way to support creative expression and identity formation. We want to continue to expand the voices of the youth by providing them the platform to speak about the complexities of being a child in foster care. Among the many youth voice efforts the YAC is all about teaching young people about the ways media shapes perceptions of themselves and the world around them, and equipping them with the tools to tell their own stories.
Prioritizing our youth perspectives helps them to make decisions that affect their learning and lives, and creating the YAC has put them in positions of genuine leadership and authority. When running a program designed to enhance the lives of the youth, who better to critique it than the youth themselves.
BEST Kids envisioned creating a culture of youth voice where young people’s ideas are both taken seriously and implemented with the support of caring adults. It takes adults willing to share power and expand possibilities and it takes young people willing to take initiative and lead. We hope the Youth Advisory Council can serve as an example of what it takes to make a culture of youth voice a reality.
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