Family relationships

Jamerika Haynes-Lewis, USA Ambassador Pageant Ms. 2021

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Entering foster care at the age of five, Jamerika experienced a wide spectrum of foster experiences: foster care, kinship care, respite, foster-to-adopt and group homes. 

“When I was 18, I was a senior in high school. Twelve hours after walking the stage at my high school graduation, I was on a Greyhound bus back to my hometown. I had practically spent my entire childhood in the system. I was more than ready to leave yet ill-prepared. Later on, I would reconnect with my biological family. It was hard but it was healing. My biggest takeaway from this experience is that families aren't what happens to them. Rather, they should receive support and compassion during times of trouble."

At FosterClub, we work to ensure that the implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act (and other federal legislation) is informed by lived experience, which aims to direct funds and support services which could keep families together through mental health assistance, substance use prevention and treatment, parental education, etc. We also understand that this situation is not ideal for every family and child facing foster care. How could this support be of assistance to foster youth and families in your experience?

"Services are needed. They provide tangible support and resources to families in need. However, in order for these services to be viable, families need connections in their lives. Not from the standpoint of being 'a population served,' but where they have friendships, are part of a network and feel their family is accepted and cared for by their community. I firmly believe this approach is what allows families to thrive during the good times and survive during the bad ones. Many families that come into care are plagued by poverty, poor social connections and discrimination. These forces are heavily stigmatized by society. This dynamic leads to our most vulnerable families being pushed to the margins. Through storytelling, advocating, and protecting families, we can mitigate the frequency of crises and strengthen community bonds."  

FosterClub is championing justice, equity, diversity and inclusion across all initiatives as reflected in its FosterJEDI and Foster Equality programs. Do you have any stories and/or suggestions to share around these initiatives and your foster care experience?

"For these initiatives to work, we have to truly understand what families are experiencing. You can't  talk about justice, equity, and diversity without talking about the impact of injustice, inequality, and discrimination. These incidents cause people to feel ashamed, isolate, and remain silent. Because of this, people don't want to share their stories or get involved in advocacy. Let alone be a part of their community. They are tired and are surviving with limited resources. We first have to help people heal, feel included, and protect them. If every community did this on a local level, families would feel more bonded, connected, and likely to speak up when things go wrong. They are more inclined to participate in programs from an informed position rather than being imposed upon. This is the true definition of empowerment and self-determination."

Did you receive any positive support you can share from your placement in the foster care system?

"Yes, primarily through my education. I was a very dedicated student and loved school. I considered it to be a constant in my life. With school, I knew I could develop a skills set that would serve me as I reached adulthood. My teachers were a positive influence in my life and really helped me to develop my talents. This helped me to stay focused in spite of my home life."

Did you encounter any challenges within the foster care system? 

"Yes, a lack of support regarding the grief I experienced. My mother's rights were terminated. After that, no one ever mentioned my mother or asked her about me. Up until that point, I had continued visits with my biological family and mother. It was very confusing and insulting. People spoke negatively about my family and said they didn't want me. When I reconnected with my family, I discovered that was not the case. Whatever the reason may be, when parents can't take care of their child, we should mourn this predicament. The system should provide counseling to all parties involved (i.e. children and biological parents). I didn't want the memory of my mom wiped away. I wish people would have asked me about my family and what my life was like before foster care. This action would have allowed me to retain my family's dignity and precious memories."

Can you describe how these (positive & negative) experiences influenced your journey to fame?

"It has taught me to not take anything for granted. To be kind and give people a chance. I try my best to not assume anything. I always do my best to listen and learn something everyday in my life."

Who was your support system who helped shape your journey? If so, can you explain how they impacted your life experience?

"There are a number of people. I would say my foster parents, the Johnsons, were a major influence in my life. They didn't take advantage of my love or try to compete for my attention from my birth family. They honored the fact I was someone else's child. I understand this is not easy to do. Especially when you're loving and caring for a child as your own. To me this is the epitome of grace. I only lived with the Johnson for five years but I still feel loved by them. They have since passed away. I miss and love them dearly."

How do you think your foster care experience shaped who you are today?

"It has made me appreciative of life. That it can truly turn on a dime. It was a major loss being seperated from my family. However, loss has taught me to love wholly and give my best in everything that I do. It has made the good times so much sweeter. Winning my crown brought so much joy to my life. It was because of my experience in being in care, I became an advocate for those who've experienced foster care."

How have your successes outside of foster care shaped your perceptions about foster care and those who are still in the system?

"It has highlighted the fact that no one is successful on their own. We can't expect families to weather a crisis alone. This is why connections are so important. They serve as a protective barrier to having a crisis become worse and unsalvageable. Connections also help people feel seen and not alone."  

Why do you feel inspired to give back to those who are still within the foster care system?

"Because I wish I knew someone like me growing up in foster care. I did meet other foster kids but it was sporadic. I never met an adult or knew of any who had been in foster care. It made me feel ashamed and that something was wrong with me and my family. I want kids and families to know they are not their circumstances. That everyone has problems. I want these families to know that someone is thinking of them. That someone wants them to succeed and make it."

Can you describe what your goals are for young people in foster care?

"My goal is that young people will start to think about their lives. When you're in care, the focus is on your family, social worker, school, etc. If they  can think about their lives and what they want to do, this can give youth the chance to see themselves outside of their situation. This visualization can help young people start to heal because their focus isn't solely about their foster care experience. It helps them to see themselves as unique and having a sense of self. Before you talk about a job or college, that sense of self has to present. I believe having an accepting, positive adult in a young person's life can help them develop their personal identity."

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your fame so far?

"Knowing that I can use my story to help eliminate the stigma of foster care. People need help. They shouldn't be abandoned or mistreated because of this fact. We all need help sometimes." 

What would you change about the foster care system if you could?

"I would like to see 'family foster care' and more in-home services provided. If it's safe, a family would live together and have a specialist work with them on life skills and help parents bond with their children. I would like to see these services offered to all families, not just low income ones. Also, connecting families with one another through these programs. This would help families know they have someone to call on." 

If you could share anything with young people still in foster care, what would it be?

"Know you are worthy, capable and not alone. It can feel lonely but lonely isn't a destination. There is at least one person in this world who wants to be your friend, hire you for a job or marry you. It is my hope you can overcome any hesitation and go out into the world unashamed and unafraid. Yes, it can be scary. But remember, you have rights, including the right to be treated with respect and love. You belong in this world just like everyone else." 

Please add any other information you feel is relevant to young people in and exiting foster care.  

"There are resources available to you. Do your research and find out what is best for you. These resources can help you to find a place to live, jumpstart your career, or go to college or a trade school. Not to mention, you'll also have adults who can help you with figuring out what you need and want. Whatever you want to do, you don't have to do it alone." 



 

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