By Kelly Vassar
Earlier this month policy makers, child advocates, and former foster youth packed a dining hall at the California Endowment Center in downtown Los Angeles to celebrate 25 years of the California Youth Connection (CYC).
The event highlighted CYC achievements over the past twenty-five years; no small endeavor given CYC chapters are run by youth, all from the foster care system.
“Twenty-five years ago at the age of sixteen, as a foster youth I was given the opportunity to share my voice and my experiences to help improve the quality of foster care,” said Haydee Cuza, a former CYC member who was addressing the crowd via a video recording, “A group of us came together with the support of adult supporters to create bylaws and a vision for what policy and youth voice would look like.”
The youth voice has grown strong as CYC members lobby legislators to reform the foster care system. In 2010 their voice was heard when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into effect Assembly Bill 12 (AB 12): California’s Fostering Connections Act. This bill includes improvements to the Kin-GAP program and extends foster care to age 21.
“Foster youth in fact, are the majority of our organization’s leaders, most of our program staff are former foster youth, and 100 percent of our advisory board are current and former foster youth,” said Carlos Collard, Board President of CYC in a video recording to the crowd.
With its heavy focus on foster youth leadership in CYC chapters, foster youth are creating the organization’s culture and helping to define its mission.
CYC chapters are county-based groups where members and supporters get involved at the local level. According to the CYC website: “Each CYC chapter identifies what is most needed by foster youth in their county and determines how to address those issues. The ultimate goal is for chapters to work on local issues – which change child welfare policy or practice. “
Each CYC chapter also works on community engagement activities, with chapters coming together to work on statewide issues that affect the foster youth in California. Among the policy maker’s youth members have worked with is Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).
Rep. Bass, co-founder of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, and Dr. Michael Olenick, CEO of the Child Care Resource Center were awarded the CYC legend award at the celebration. The award recognizes their service and commitment to improving the lives of foster children throughout the country.
Rep. Bass had this to share with CYC youth members through a video recording: “You are an amazing example of what youth can do in terms of your voice and your power in influencing public policy around the child welfare system in California.”
CYC Member and Guardian Scholar Kevin Clark spoke to the crowd about his experience in CYC as a former foster youth: “It’s just amazing, it’s so amazing to be part of this organization, and the best part about it is we’re creating the community for ourselves. I’m actively participating in something I’m creating for myself. ”
As CYC expands throughout California, with foster youth forming new chapters where they effectively organize and lobby for child welfare reform, policy makers have taken notice:
“Over the past 25 years the organization has worked on a number of policies and legislations, such as the emancipation of foster care services until age 21 through the passing of AB 12, priority housing for foster youth on college campuses, and the foster care bill of rights,” said Marcelina Valenzuela, CYC advisory board co-chair.
“Today, youth voices are expected to be at the table, and it’s a beautiful thing,” Haydee Cuza.
Kelly Vassar is a graduate student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.