Draped over LaTeesha Pinkney’s white “Gift of Compassion” t-shirt was a long, thin necklace, carefully strung with gold beads and a dozen or so charms. Pinkney made the necklace, hand-picking each charm for some significance or memory it brought to mind. When asked which is her favorite, the 26-year-old quickly spun the necklace to a smooth but oddly shaped green stone.
“When I first saw it, it reminded me of an imperfect world. You know a globe, it’s all perfect and a circle,” she explained. “But it’s not really like that living how I’ve lived … so it’s just an imperfect circle.”
Pinkney made the necklace as part of the Gift of Compassion fellowship, a program that she and five other former foster youth and leaders participated in to learn about meditation as a way to move through grief and find “a way back to your true self” – the group’s working definition of therapy.
This past Thursday, the cohort led a day-long conference for policy-makers, social workers, independent living coordinators, and other foster youth at the California Endowment called “Overcoming Trauma and Grief Through Meditation: A Dialogue on Available Youth Services.”
The Gift of Compassion was created by Ying Ming Tu, who goes by Tu-2, and Angela Oh, who ran a similar program in Napa, California. When they began to explore conducting a program in Los Angeles, they collaborated with the RightWay Foundation and were connected with these six young people. Since January, the group has met one full Saturday every month, for sessions about defining and recognizing grief, and moving through the stages of that grief using meditation.
Thursday’s culminating event was planned entirely by the fellows, from the agenda for the day to the food that would be served for lunch. They began with a focus on what loss has meant to each fellow individually and to youth in foster care on a broader scale. The program then moved through methods of healing, such as music, art, yoga, and of course, meditation, mirroring the path that they have trodden.
They brought the audience to their feet in a standing ovation for their poetry, and also all the way to the ground, when the day closed with a specifically trauma-informed yoga session.
Pinkney herself went into her foster home at only two weeks old, and grew up there, not knowing that it was a foster home until she was 18 years old. But she grew up suspecting that she was different, and “always knew I did not belong,” she said. She recalled it being a foster home that technically provided for her, but “emotionally fell short.”
Each fellow had their own unique story of grief, which they shared with the group throughout the morning, identifying the moments of loss that stuck with them — the stages of grief in which they have felt trapped. As the fellows described experiences of bullying, being kicked out of group homes, trying to protect younger siblings from gang violence, not being understood in school, living on Skid Row, contemplating suicide, they were vulnerable in front of a room of strangers.
But as the six of them sat in a semi-circle in front of the crowd, they moved thoughtfully through their stories using language of healing, and finding themselves. The mood in the room moved fluidly between the somber and the familial, including the audience in the bond and “unity” that these six came to experience through meditations, breathing exercises and games that they led.
The fellows as individuals have come to fully embrace the therapeutic skills the program taught them. They now hope to transition into leadership roles, giving other foster youth the Gift of Compassion Fellowship.
“We’re trying to start sooner and let [other foster youth] know that grief is a process, you know? Own it,” Pinkney said. “Whether it is you did lose your parents, loss of the environment, whether it’s loss of what you know or who you knew. A school — whether it’s one placement to the next … you can go through this process to come out healthier, mindfully and emotionally on the other side.”