Building on past legislative success, Oregon Foster Youth Connection continues to thrive

Note: This is our fourth and final entry in a week long series of articles highlighting the Oregon Foster Youth Connection and foster youth in Oregon, in celebration of National Foster Care Month.

Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC) does a lot of great things for foster youth. Since 2008, the youth-led group has trained and developed hundreds of young leaders, collected and donated nearly 1,000 duffle bags for foster youth who frequently move, and provided training at conferences and events nationwide.

If that wasn’t enough, they’ve also racked up a string of victories in the Oregon Legislature, a process typically navigated by seasoned lobbyists and political insiders. Through the years, OFYC has created or testified on numerous legislative concepts, several of which became Oregon law.

The creation of the foster youth tuition waiver for Oregon’s colleges and universities originated with OFYC and was successfully passed during the 2011 session. That bill increases access to higher education for Oregon’s foster youth.

OFYC was also responsible for the creation and passage of 2013’s Foster Children’s Bill of Rights, which requires the state to inform foster youth of their rights and created a hotline and ombudsman position. That position works to ensure that foster children and youth rights are protected.

The 2015 session has been no different. With the help of legislative champions like Senator Sara Gelser, Representatives Carla Piluso, Duane Stark, Alissa Keny-Guyer, and many more, OFYC is already enjoying legislative success this time around.

OFYC’s two bills this session – one creating savings accounts for foster youth and another to encourage extracurricular activities – have already passed the Oregon House in a landslide, 58-1 and 59-0, respectively. This week they passed out of a Senate committee and should be headed to the floor for a full vote. Should they pass, they will head to Governor Kate Brown’s desk for a final signature and officially become law.

With their legislative success, volunteerism, and leadership development, OFYC has sent a message to the approximately 12,000 children and youth who experience the Oregon foster system each year: you have a voice in your state, your community, and your own lives.

And when foster youth gather together as one, that voice is heard loud and clear.

Stability, trust, and friendships: a conversation with an Oregon Foster Youth Connection leader

Akasha is 18 years old and she has been in the foster care system for 13 years. She is a Chapter Lead in the OFYC Lane County Chapter and has been involved in OFYC for the past year. We sat down to talk to her about foster care, OFYC, and using her civic voice.

Q: What activities are you involved in within OFYC?

A: I’m one of three chapter leads in the Lane County chapter, which means I help organize and lead the chapter meetings. In addition to that, I participate in panels for potential foster parents and I was a part of a work group to update rules around foster care after the passage of federal legislation. I also participated in the 2015 OFYC Advocacy Convening at the State Capitol in Salem in February.

Q: What do you like about participating in OFYC?

A: My favorite part is that I’m able to help other foster youth create a better experience in the foster care system. That’s important.

Q: Tell me more about the OFYC Advocacy Convening.

Akasha and other OFYC members meeting with Representative Carla Piluso at the 2015 OFYC Advocacy Convening.

Akasha and other OFYC members meeting with Representative Carla Piluso at the 2015 OFYC Advocacy Convening.

A: I had a really fun time! It was a two day event in Salem attended by fellow OFYC members and a variety of advocates and supporters. I was able to meet new friends and talk to people about similar situations in our chapters and in our lives. Because all of us there are either foster youth or we support the system, we all know how the system works. It was really helpful to know there is so much support from my fellow foster youth and advocates. And it was really inspiring to be around so many people who want to improve the foster care system.

Q: What was it like to go to the capitol and talk to lawmakers about the foster care system?

A: We were broken up into several teams and we prepared our speeches. We got training on how to adequately express the issues we wanted to discuss and then our teams visited with different lawmakers. My most memorable meeting was with Representative Carla Piluso. She is very supportive of our foster youth bills and she really wants to help in any way she can to improve the foster system. She was a big reason why the day was so memorable.

Q: You also recently participated in a group that met to discuss how to implement new federal rules for the foster care system. What was that experience like?

A: It was another positive experience of being a member of OFYC. It was also a lot of paperwork! I got to sit at a table alongside judges, caseworkers, policy makers, and advocates. As a youth inside of the foster care system, you don’t often get to see what happens “behind the scenes” – let alone have a voice in crafting policy and rules. So this was a great experience because I got to learn more about the rules and policies firsthand and we had the opportunity to share our own opinions and experiences to ensure that our voices were included in the process.

Q: How has OFYC helped you in other areas of your life?

A: It has already helped me improve my communication skills, teamwork, leadership, and my organizational skills. It has encouraged me to raise my hand and participate in class more often. It has given me a reasonable and appropriate voice when speaking with my foster parents so that I can have productive conversations with them, especially if an issue arises. When you learn the skills to speak and handle things appropriately, it’s a huge plus. I know it’s going to help me in the future with things like job interviews and at work.

Q: What would you say to encourage other foster youth to join OFYC?

A: It can make a big difference in your life. Foster youth don’t have a lot of connections or friends because they have to move a lot. OFYC brings stability and trust and helps us develop peer relationships and friendships. There are also a lot of adult supporters to talk to that you can trust.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I am stepping down from DHS care in July, but OFYC will still be a big part of my life and I plan to remain a member. Even when people age out of OFYC, a lot of people continue to volunteer and help. Once you’re involved, you want to stay involved.

About Oregon Foster Youth Connection: OFYC, a program of Children First for Oregon, is a statewide, youth led, advocacy group of current and former foster youth between 14 – 25 years of age. OFYC trains and empowers youth to actively participate in the development of policies, programs, and practices that improve the lives of kids in foster care.