The following are portraits of former foster youth in settings that represent who they are and their advice to current foster youth.
In collaboration with Haven of Hope, First Place for Youth + Ticket to Dream
Valencia is a 19 year old artist balancing work and college. Teresa, 37, is a civil rights attorney advocating for victims of wrongful death cases against the police. Justin, 28 years old is a student and bartender, while Dorean, 32, is a photographer who recently started a lifestyle podcast on the joys and community surrounding cannabis. What connects them is not only a tangible brilliance, but also an experience that links almost half a million young people living across the US today — that is being part of, or formerly part of, our country’s youth foster care system.
During our interviews we begin to understand that at times the details of life within the foster care system can overlap: experiences of moving from one foster family to another, feelings of uncertainty, the quickly acquired independence that is a necessary means for survival and growth. Indeed, the stories take the unique shape of the person involved, always. We find, through these narratives, deep insight on a flawed system, but also a bold and unique vision for building life beyond being a ward of the state.
As we continue to imagine how to transform our government and our world, these dynamic leaders and advocates dare to dream of one that might include all of us, not just some of us. The insights of this group of changemakers, connected by a history of time spent within a complicated system, reveal an important reminder: it’s not our past or present that defines us, but our intentions when looking toward the future.
The following are photos of our participants in settings that represent who they are as well as their advice to current foster youth.
Valencia, 19, sales associate and college student
Advice: Find your passion.
Tell us about your artwork and how it’s supported your journey.
I like to do art. I like to do stipple, watercolor, rendering, and anything I can get my hands on that I want to learn, especially palette knife. I don’t remember exactly when I started doing painting, but I started at a young age sketching and drawing, because my cousin was really good at drawing horses. And so it inspired me to get better at what I do, because she told me to practice.
What is something you painted that you are proud of?
I painted this watercolor of a lion roaring. I picked a lion because throughout many different cultures and religions a lion symbolizes strength and dignity. That’s what I want to be like. I haven’t had a lot of strength throughout the years. [Art is] something that’s pulled me through a lot of stuff I’ve been through.
Whit Poppy Dress, Ganni Organza Jacket from LePoint,Jacquemus Shoes from McMullen, Leigh Miller Earrings, Cult Gia Bag
Based on your experience in foster care, what would like to see changed?
One of the things that I would like to see changed in foster care is to actually listen to foster youth, because making decisions based on a social worker’s professional opinion versus the youth’s opinion causes conflict. There’s a lack of honest communication, and then there’s a fallout between the social worker and the foster youth. And that’s when the foster youth decides to give up, because they don’t think you’re listening to them. At that point, they just don’t care. They just want to get away–because they feel that no matter what they do, you’re not going to be listening to them and who they really are.
What advice would you give to current foster youth?
I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I’ve moved around… five foster homes in my senior year. And it’s hard, especially when you find a foster parent that you really like and then you don’t get a chance to say goodbye. They won’t let you talk to them. But I would tell them to just know that… you have the strength to push through. This is just one page in the chapter, and this is only one chapter of life. You have a whole book of life. There are many other chapters you will have in your life. Just finish through this chapter.
Dorean, 32, Photographer and co-host of Herban Lotus Podcast
Advice: Don’t give up.
Do you feel there is a stigma associated with growing up in foster care?
I did. There were times where we’d [be placed in foster care]–we’d be transferred between schools, and I never told anybody what it was that I would be going through. And I don’t think a lot of my friends know a lot about what I’ve been through in that aspect of the foster care system, because I feel like people will start to ask questions about your family like, ‘Wasn’t your family able to kind of step in for that role?’ It just opens you up to all of these questions about what might be going on in your life that you might not have a space to talk about.
Whit Desi Pant + Shirt, You Must Create Hat, New Balance Shoes
What advice do you have for young people navigating the foster care system?
Everything is going to be okay. That’s my literal mantra. Everything will be okay. Keep going through it and doing it in the most healing way for yourself, and always look to participate in self-care at all times and making sure that you’re looking out for the things that will help make you heal from any experience, because we’re all stronger than we ever thought that we could be. Our entire existence, even being here right now, means that we are strong enough to get through anything.
What have you learned from following this mantra?
I think that we don’t always recognize how strong we are until we’re put in a situation where we don’t have any other option but to go, to keep going. And I think as humans, that’s what we do. We just keep going. And I really think that if you do continue to keep going and you make that decision, your strength is going to shine outside of you regardless of any challenge, because you made that decision to just keep going.
Walid Single Breasted Cotton Canvas Coat + Trousers. Balenciaga Shoes
Darryl, 28, Admissions Specialist at Year Up
Advice: Your past does not define you.
How do you keep your past and future in perspective?
Own all the experiences that you’ve had in your childhood, whether good or bad. Look at them in a way where you can learn the right lessons from them. An important lesson that I had to learn was not to compare my life to others and to really focus on my own goals, how I was going to achieve those goals. Look at your life through your own lens and decide what you want to accomplish and what you’re capable of, and don’t let your circumstances or your childhood define who you are.
What advice would you give to current foster youth?
It’s important for a foster youth not to compare their lives to others. One of the reasons that I say that is because I believe one of the unfortunate things about going through the foster care system is that you go through life being predestined for failure. A lot of foster youth kind of grow up with the freedom to fail, is how I like to say it. What I mean is that there’s not always an expectation that they’re supposed to succeed, or that they’re supposed to achieve anything or do anything spectacular with their lives. And when you go through life with that lens, it makes it very difficult to see, to define what success really is for yourself. So if I could tell foster youth anything it would really be to try to remove that lens– and when it comes to defining what that experience is to grow up in the foster care system, to really make sure that they define it for themselves and not let the statistics or the predetermined stereotypes and perspectives about what a foster youth is play any part. Because we all have our own unique experiences, and we’re all in a very unique position to decide how to utilize those experiences as we move through our lives and into adulthood and starting our own families.
Angelina, 19, Sales Associate
Advice: Advocate for yourself and others.
You brought a stuffed animal as your prop today, tell us about your monkey.
I’ve had my monkey since I was around five, six years old. I remember it being one of my first gifts in my home. Well, they said it was from Santa. But I’ve always known it was from my mom. It’s sentimental. After I left my home, I wasn’t really able to take much except for the stuffed animal which was brought to me. And then, when I went to every foster home, that’s the one thing I was always able to bring.
Kamperett Sheer Fuchsia Dress from LePoint,Pferdgarten Blue floating Jacket from McMullen,Levi’s, Jacquemus Sneakers from McMullen
How have you found your voice during this time?
I love advocating for people. I have advocated for many people to come to our program [Haven of Hope]. I never used to want to have to ask for anything, but over time I learned that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t get anything, or nothing could be done [to get me what I needed]. When I started advocating, I realized it helped me to help other people.
Aries Rose Print Cotton Twill Chino Trousers + Harrington Jacket, Converse Shoes
Justin, 28, Motivational speaker, Student, Bartender
Advice: Vulnerability is a superpower.
How have you healed from your past experiences?
I’ve had to learn to just unlock the door to my heart … just let it pour out because there’s a lot of love inside of us and we’re really good people and we do really, really incredible, unfathomable things, and that’s the light that beams in all of us. It shines into everybody. If it wasn’t for the struggle that I’ve been through, I wouldn’t have tried so hard to do the impossible and do what isn’t expected of me. You just have to weather the storm and plant yourself on a good foundation, surround yourself with only quality people and support, love, and then everything else is going to take care of itself.
What advice would you give a young Justin?
Stay patient. The key to my success is going to be the struggle that I’m in right now. If it wasn’t for the struggle that I’ve been through, I wouldn’t have tried so hard to do the impossible and do what isn’t expected of me. I would tell myself that its worst first but greater later. And you just have to weather the storm and plant yourself on a good foundation, surround yourself with only quality people and support, love, and that everything else is going to take care of itself.
You are an aspiring motivation speaker, tell us about that?
Me personally I just want to inspire people with my story and to be able to show them that I’ve used my hardship, my trauma, my struggle to my advantage. In life, we just get dealt a hand of cards and you don’t get to choose those cards. But you do have a choice to either fold that hand or to work towards a winning hand. And that starts with you and it ends with you. It’s your intrinsic motivation, it’s your reason, it’s your purpose for what you’re doing, for what it is that you want to do and want to accomplish. And if I could show those who are in that struggle that it is a possibility to change your stars to recreate yourself. I would show them that you don’t have to embody your trauma as your reality you can change it. You can become whatever you want to become, and it’s a really powerful thing. So, I just want to give that back. I want to be vulnerable. I want to expose my truth. I want to live in that truth because at the end of the day that’s my true self and that’s what makes me happy. That’s what keeps my heart full. And I don’t think many people know that. They don’t know that they have the power to do that. So, whatever I can do to inspire them whether it’s speaking or showing them. That’s my dream and that’s what I want to do.
Kenzo Shirt, Yoli & Otis Skirt, Stylist’s Own JacketNikki Chasin Dress from LePoint, Tibi Green Dress from LePoint, Leigh Miller Earrings
Angelica, 34, Career Development Specialist
Advice: Seek stability
What makes you, you?
Prior to entering the foster care system– cooking was a huge component of my upbringing, a very fun memory. My father threw me in the kitchen in a very early age and he actually taught my mother how to cook. My father is Afro-Cuban so he taught all of us how to cook Cuban food. He taught us his mother, my grandmother’s recipes. For that, I’m thankful because number one, I know how to cook. It reminds myself and my children of where we come from, of our roots, of our ancestors. Culture is very important to me. My heritage is very important to me.
Tell us your story…
I was placed into foster care a week before my first day of high school at the age of 13. One could imagine that’s a pretty scary place to be in. I was scared of the unknown. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I had a very challenging freshman year in high school I did a lot of things that I regretted. And as a result, the following year, I decided to make the best out of my unfortunate situation and my grades started to improve in school. I even thought about wanting to go off to college which I did upon graduation. I went to Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. That was a very humbling and awesome experience. I completed my freshman year at Xavier and I came back home for the summer, which is when I got pregnant with my son, Brandon Jr. And so here I was again at this place, scared of the unknown, not knowing what to do, not knowing where I was going to live.
How did you connect to the resources you needed to survive?
I contacted my social worker at Independent Living Skills in San Francisco County and she referred me to First Place where I would be in a position to obtain my first place if I followed all the requirements. A month before I gave birth to my son Brandon, I moved into my first place. I can’t put into words the feeling that I felt when I inserted the keys into the doorknob and walked in. For once in my life, I felt like I did know [stability]. I had control of my future. Although I was about to be a young mother that I knew for a fact that I was going to create a better future for my son.
Foster youth are emancipated at the age of 18. I feel like when we reach 18, we still don’t have the resources that we need to achieve self-sufficiency. And often times we fall victims to homelessness, to the prison system or even death. And I think it’s very important that programs such as First Place exist, and continue to exist, because it’s very much needed for aftercare youth. Because we’re all still trying to figure it out. It’s especially true in college. When you’re in college there aren’t many resources, that is, resources are very limited. Had it not been for First Place, I don’t think I would have been able to go to school, or complete the things that I have achieved currently. Because of something so simple as having a stable place to live.
Any parting words?
The advice I would give to foster youth or youth aging out of the system is to keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t let small hiccups discourage you from seeing the bigger picture. And manifest your future. And, don’t get pregnant [laughter].
Sasquatchfabrix Tie-Dye Cotton T-Shirt + Manpower Paper Bag Waist Trousers, Stella Mccartney Rover Patchwork Print Cotton Shirt, Nike Shoes
Brandon, 15, student
Advice: Come stay with me and my family.
What is your experience with foster care?
My experience is that my mom came out of foster care. And it helped her get stability in her life when she needed it the most. And I feel like foster children can get lost very easily, and it’s important that we recognize that in our society, and that we guide them down a right path so they can have a good life.
What’s is your advice to kids in foster care?
I would just say come stay with me and my family. If I knew them, I would offer my house to them, and I would talk to my mom and dad about it to give them a house that they could stay in and lay low and recover from whatever is going on in their life.
Teresa, 37, Civil Rights Attorney.
Advice: You’ve got to have a plan.
How were you able to make the transition from foster youth to adult?
When you turn 18 you’re going to pretty much be on your own. You have to find these resources or these programs that will be able to support you. Have the mindset that, ‘I need to make it on my own; I need to be able to figure it out.’ There will be support along the way, but you have to be willing to take on the fight. I knew that going to college I would be able to at least stay in a dorm for the next four years. And then I’ll figure it out after that, or at least I’ll be in a much better position than I am now. For the youth that are going to be aging out, you’ve got to be realistic about what’s going to happen. It can’t come to you as a surprise; it’s going to happen, and you’ve got to have a plan.
Nika Tang Plaid Top, Tibi Skirt
How did you become an attorney?
I always liked reading mysteries and just things that are like criminal, FBI kind of stuff. And somehow, it switched to law, to being a lawyer. But then once I had that goal in mind, I knew exactly what I needed to do; went to college; knew exactly what I wanted to major in; graduated college in three years; knew I was going to go to law school; did everything I needed to do to go to law school; knew what I needed to do to pass the bar. I set a plan, and I just did what I had to do. There was no stopping me.
Charvette, Service Unit Manager at Kaiser Permanente
Advice: People who are successful didn’t get there by themselves. They had a lot of help along the way.
Your photo represents your love of travel, tell us about that…
I love to travel. I’m so grateful to be here. I think there was a point in my life where it was really hard. And so now I’m at a different place. And so, out of gratitude, I like to explore. Because I feel I’ve been given the opportunity to live. Like I should make the most of it. And I just see— I love the adventure of a new place.
What do you attribute to getting you to where you are today?
I think I had a personal motto of make the most of every opportunity. As far as my career and education, I definitely took advantage of every opportunity going back to being a foster youth in high school, I joined the independent living skills program. I was there, and I was there every day. They give you a stipend and a bus pass and those things might seem small today, but they were huge back then. I took the support from wherever it came. Every opportunity. I didn’t have any shame in accepting it. A big part of success is showing up, right. That is what I would encourage young people to do, take advantage of opportunities that come their way.
What would you tell those who are afraid or too prideful to ask for help?
I think for me, because I didn’t have a family– well, I started out as a family. I was adopted and then I ended up in foster care at an older age. I was always searching for family, and so I learned to make family wherever I went. For me, it was a little bit easier to accept help. Because not only did those programs help me get an apartment, but when I went into the office everyone knew me, and they were supportive. If you feel bad about accepting things, maybe look at it as an opportunity to have support, because everyone needs support. I learned later in life that people you see who are successful, they didn’t get that way by themselves. So many people helped them along the way to be who they are today.
Photos / María del Río
Art Direction / Danielle Moore
Styling / Amy Soderlind
Prop Stylist / Kaylan George
Hair / Sara Chestnutt-Fry
Makeup / Janet Mariscal
Production / Lola Creative Agency
Writer / A-lan A. Holt