Why do Foster Youth Need Mentors?
Foster youth have lived many lives—many times even before entering foster care. Many have been robbed of their innocence and often lack the fundamentals of how to create and maintain stable relationships. It can be isolating to not feel a sense of belonging with your peers and adults when you have little to no common ground. There is a lot of insight that comes with suffering and the simplest of relationships can prove surprisingly difficult when it seems you live a different life than those around you.
To mentor a foster youth is to invest in a population that is one of the most abused, fragile, and in more need than many others. Many foster youth misunderstand the role of a mentor until they’ve had a mentoring relationship that works. For many foster youth, the idea of another person investing and caring about them without a caveat sounds absurd. Most foster youth do not know what a mentor is necessarily for, or how to go about seeking one, or what they even need out of a mentor.
The Value of a Mentor through the Eyes of a Former Foster Youth
Foster youth come with complex and unique backgrounds. Mentoring a foster youth is a package of dealing with various parts of their lives: whether it be the foster care system, bureaucratic processes, the youth’s biological family, foster parents, or the well-being of the youth themselves. The kind of relationship that develops with a foster youth depends on their needs, who they are as a person, and how the mentor can fit into their world. Unfortunately, many youth do not know the answers to these questions and they are still trying to figure out who they are and what kind of relationships they need to thrive while in foster care. As a former foster youth myself, I’d like to explain how mentors made a powerful impact on my future and well-being, as I most certainly would not be as stable as I am today without them.
Let’s Get Personal
When I was placed into the foster care system, I was severely underweight, riddled with anxiety, trauma, and was preparing to testify in several potential rape trials. I was also going through puberty, bouncing around homes, making life-altering decisions in court for the future of my siblings and myself, and then experiencing intermittent cry and panic sessions amidst it all. Did I mention that I was only fourteen at the time? Not all foster youth enter the system in the same state that I did, but many enter the system with trauma and instability.
My first mentor was my lawyer. This relationship came about organically because my lawyer was especially invested in her work and the youth she served. She understood that I was more than just a case and that the courtroom itself can be a vulnerable experience for foster youth. Entering the courtroom and facing my abuser was a violently emotional experience for me. I would forget to breathe and cry so much that I became inaudible. Upon realizing this, my lawyer made herself a physical barrier between my abuser and myself. Before every hearing, she would explain to me what I was about to face, and privately told the judge about my emotional state. Between hearings, she would take me to lunch where she took the time to get to know me. I so desperately needed someone to listen to my internal struggles and questions, so that became the nature of our relationship — one where I vented emotionally, asked questions about life, growth, how to cope, and how to understand the chaos of my case.
My second mentor was a woman who worked at the nonprofit that I volunteered at while in foster care. This nonprofit became my home, the only symbolic form of permanency in my life, and the employees had a very personal and powerful influence on me. Our relationship began with me leaning on her emotionally, crying and venting in her office almost on a daily basis, and asking her for advice. The relationship deepened and her husband and friends began to feel a lot like my family as they brought me into their world. On top of being caring and supportive, this relationship showed me a different kind of life. I learned a lot from being around them, things like cooking, saving money, eating healthy, and being present. These values were organically intertwined into every discussion we had. Although they moved away, they are still like family to me.
Through these mentoring relationships and others, I learned how to love, how to process my emotions, how to communicate what I was thinking and feeling, and how to trust. I even learned how to be a good friend and how to listen. Many foster youth simply want someone to be there. At the core of all my mentoring relationships I just needed someone present and permanent that I could be at “home” with, someone that wasn’t a part of the many revolving doors in my life, someone that would accept my anxious calls at 2 am if I needed it. Someone that actually knew me: who I was, my history, my likes and dislikes, and the things that make up my personality. These mentors made foster care just a bit more bearable – because they understood my situation and they were always there to help pick up the pieces each time I was retriggered or moved homes. I wholeheartedly needed someone that was in tune to my needs and someone that actually cared about me.
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