For three San Diego County employees, blending into the background has put them at the forefront of an empowering experience that’s teaching valuable life lessons to foster youth.
Vina Sandal and Jennifer Elkins, both San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency social workers, and Kevin Saluta, a family court counselor, are volunteers with the California Youth Connection (CYC), a statewide advocacy group for current and former foster youth ages 14 to 24.
“I’ve learned that I most effectively carry out the supporter role when, instead of merely telling youth how to achieve empowerment, the other adults and I provide them with opportunities to take action to empower themselves,” said Saluta. “Essentially, I have discovered that embracing the background role of an adult supporter allows the youth-driven process to blossom.”
CYC collects the voices of foster youth across the state and unites them in advocating improving the foster care system, working on legislation and engaging social workers in improving the child welfare system.
“It’s rewarding and it’s fun,” said Sandal. “They learn from us and we learn from them.
“These are their voices – it makes me want to be a better social worker.”
The foster youth group has helped pass over 25 bills through the California legislature and enacted reforms at the county level across the state.
“I have remained involved in CYC for the past decade because the youth in the organization consistently demonstrate the tremendous impact that their words and deeds have toward improving the foster care system,” said Saluta.
The San Diego County chapter has been working with San Diego State University for the past five years. One outcome of the collaboration has been a new curriculum for prospective social workers.
“In the past two to three years, CYC members have helped develop a social worker curriculum for SDSU from a youth perspective,” said Sandal. “Their input lets social workers know what’s needed directly from the kids it affects.”
The group has also made presentations to an all-staff meeting of San Diego County social workers, San Diego Unified School District Staff and the County’s Foster Parents Association.
“Some of the most dynamic public speakers that I’ve ever had the privilege to witness have been youth members of the San Diego chapter, and their messages singularly and collectively educate, resonate, and motivate,” said Saluta.
The local CYC foster youth recently returned from their annual statewide conference in Ventura. They spent three days working with foster youth from around the state, coming to a consensus on the issues they felt were important for the organization to work on.
They decided to address social worker and attorney case loads, youth sexual orientation issues, mentoring and foster parent accountability.
The final day of the conference legislators, ombudsman and social work and welfare officials are invited to hear about the issues the youth have selected to highlight.
“Kids present issues and discuss solutions and all the suggestions come from the youth,” said Sandal. “It’s good to see the kids come together and it’s really inspiring.”
The San Diego County chapter, which has a core group of eight to 10 active members, also participates in an annual Day at the Capitol.
“The youth pick a policy topic to focus on and meet with legislators,” said Sandal. “Just imagine these youth – some have been homeless – sitting in a legislator’s office.
“It’s incredibly powerful and empowering.”
For many of the youth, the event is the first time they’ve ever put on a tie or ridden in a plane, said Sandal.
“That’s the best part,” said Elkins. “They’re so proud and it just changes their demeanor.
“They get to see how professionals dress when they go to the capitol,” she said. “It gives them life skills when they don’t even know they’re learning them.”
Sandal also said the Day at the Capitol is a great addition to a youth’s resume for getting in to college.
When they were there, they also shadowed local legislators for a day. This year, youth spent time with Assemblymen Nathan Fletcher and Marty Block.
The group meets regularly on the first and third Wednesdays of the month.
“They work really hard and have fun, but get things done,” said Elkins. “One of the coolest things is they really relate to each other as a family.”
“What’s impressive is that CYC youth volunteer generous amounts of their own time and energy at a life stage in which they have so many other responsibilities to balance and roles to navigate—all with the unique challenge of experiencing life in foster care,” said Saluta.
The local chapter can always use more adult volunteers.
“Any adult can be involved who wants to work with youth, but you have to let the kids have the voice,” said Sandal.
Volunteers can commit as little or as much as they want to. They are not required to attend every meeting and do a variety of things such as driving youth to meetings, supply snacks or dinner for the get-togethers or mentor the youth.
Before you can volunteer, there is a background check and finger printing – and you have to be interviewed by the youth members to make sure you’re a good fit.
“The most rewarding aspect of being an adult supporter is being able to build a relationship with the youth,” said Sandal.
“It’s a whole community for them that’s positive and supportive,” said Elkins. “They get a sense of pride about being a foster youth.
“Barriers are broken and their shared experience bond them together – different races, weights, sexuality,” she said. “They let the walls fall down it’s so powerful.”