Ever wondered how much you are willing to risk to follow your passion?
I was raised as an obedient girl in a small village in Northern Africa. My talents included walking on hot coal and balancing a sword on my head or fingertip. My real talent was understanding my place in society, as a second-class citizen – or, a woman.
When my parents came to the U.S. I was 18 and unable to speak English. I learned eventually, and followed my passion to become a teacher. But schools are not a place for risk-takers, the gamblers. Nowadays, we can’t create our lessons. They come pre-made. They call it Common Core. To me it is common bore and I miss the challenge.
High school students crowded my classroom after school for help. In exchange, they taught me what mattered to them, things like acceptance and justice. Then one mid-semester day I was transferred to an elementary school with no explanation. My former students were sent to an alternative school, against their will. The school didn’t say it outright, but I knew it didn’t want to gamble with these students’ performance on a state-standardized test.
Without these students, the district could display a banner that says, We are a school of excellence. Without me, the district wouldn’t deal with hard questions. My students and I didn’t get to say goodbye.
To make up for the lack of challenge in my new teaching assignment. I volunteered as a CASA, a court-appointed special advocate. That’s how I learned about the plight of foster youth once they age out of the system. A community leader confided that these kids rarely succeed. True, because many get exploited, trafficked, and the streets become their new home. One child passed away from the cold and another for not having his medication. I couldn’t come to terms with this. In Africa, no one dies from cold and to us there is nothing worse than to die alone.
Because of my heritage, an adult once asked, if I had lived in trees. That would be less barbaric than what happens to these youth.
I learned that vulnerable children are treated as less than second-class beings; the bulletin boards that I needed to make and the pre-made lessons I had to use seemed pointless. I gambled. I didn’t want to risk it all, but I resigned from my teaching job after two decades of extreme success, and took a solo walk around the Cincinnati area to find youth so I could offer them a mentoring camp called Under the Stars. The stars are community leaders to light the way. Under the Stars is a five-day overnight camp for five homeless foster youth. It is an intensive training and mentoring program for a complete makeover of heart, mind and spirit. I wanted to know: Could years of failure, fear, barriers and hopelessness be turned around after just five days?
I walked along the desolate streets. I admit when I looked back to remember where I left my car, my heart raced at the thought that it may not be where I left it. And when I saw bullet holes on a building, I knew they were not made by a woodpecker. One sudden sound behind me, I jolted my entire body around. It was a dried-up leaf.
I met the first youth, who then took me to find others. Agencies could not help connect me. Some even scolded me for my ideas. Others were kinder, they just ignored my calls and e-mails. Ultimately I succeeded at finding youth in nearby Hamilton and Butler counties and in offering the camp. During the program I made two startling discoveries. The first is that these American-born youth are not employable. They are polite, intelligent and eager to work, but because they have no identity, they could not apply for their own birth certificate nor their social security card. They must provide proof of identification before they could apply for an ID card.
The second discovery is that these young people, who are not couch surfers but concrete and cardboard surfers, each has a story bound by youth, lost dreams and fear. One night, one of them texted me: “Miss Leila. Can you get me?”
I replied with one letter: Y?
His response: A deer is near the cafeteria. Will he eat me?
That question came from a 22-year-old.
The answer to my initial question, can years of barriers be transformed into success in just five days, is YES. The key was to take them from victim to victor mind-set. It’s what they think about themselves that makes a difference, not what we think that matters. And I found a way to get their IDs.
From this experience I learned two things: the first is that I realized I didn’t want to stop teaching. I wanted to stop being part of the hypocrisy of teaching. I don’t want to the touch the future. I want to touch the now. Without immediate assistance, many children don’t have a future.
The other learning is this: in life we are given lemons. They never stay in that state. We have a choice – let them rot or make lemonade. When agencies didn’t help me find the youth, at first I was angry and cancelled the camp scheduled for August. I let my lemons rot. I rescheduled for September and resolved to find the kids on my own.
When I walked the streets with young people in search of other youth, they kept telling me, “Maybe you shouldn’t be on these streets.” I responded, “I do want to be here”.
Inadvertently, I passed their BS radar and they trusted me. Coincidentally, I modeled for them tenacity.
As for my gambling, I am addicted to this work. I advocate for Ohio’s House Bill 50, called Ohio Fostering Connections, which will extend foster care and allow these kids to have a home until age 21.
I’m going to leave with this: In Africa, when we say it takes a village to raise a child, we never implied that we should put God’s child to the streets.
You are welcome to join my village as a mentor, or help sponsor a child to attend Under the Stars camp.
Leila Kubesch is an activist on behalf of homeless foster youth and founder of Parents2Partners, a not-for-profit organization that empowers vulnerable family members and youth in Ohio. She directs the Under the Stars Camp for homeless foster youth. Leila may be reached at Contact@parents2Partners.org.