After aging out of Iowa’s foster care system when she graduated from high school, Kayla Powell received after-care support services through the American Home Finding Association that helped her stay on track for self-sufficiency. After expressing concerns about aspects of the foster care system, such as not being able to have sleepovers with her friends, Powell was asked by her after-care worker if she wanted to do something about it. “Yes, I would love to,” she replied.
Referred to the Youth Policy Institute of Iowa — a network site of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative® — she learned about and attended the Foundation’s 2015 Youth Leadership Institute (YLI) to receive training in leadership and advocacy skills. An annual intensive weeklong gathering, YLI prepares young people from the Jim Casey Initiative’s network of 17 sites for leadership roles in advancing child welfare policies and practices that more effectively meet the needs of young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood. From that experience, she decided to become a Jim Casey Young Fellow to work with Casey’s national team to help inform its nationwide efforts to improve outcomes for youth transitioning from foster care to adulthood.
As a Jim Casey Young Fellow who consults for Casey and other organizations, Powell recently joined Iowa’s Department of Human Rights after nearly seven years as the youth and family programs coordinator at the Ottumwa Family YMCA. In this interview, she discusses her work with youth at the Ottumwa “Y” during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and her current role in state government.
Q: What did you do for Ottumwa YMCA?
Powell: I was doing community-based work in a low-income area of rural Iowa. As the YMCA’s youth and family program coordinator, I focused on youth development and equity and inclusion. When COVID hit, the governor declared that all gyms had to close, including the fitness and recreation programs at YMCAs. We could still offer our community programming, and we realized there would be unmet needs for youth in our community. The first thing that came to mind was the lack of access to supportive adults and peers and the lack of access to food. With the schools closed and a majority of our students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, there was a real concern about youth getting fed.
Q: What was your response?
Powell: I had good relationships within the community already, so I texted the superintendents of the two school districts in our area. This issue was on their radar, too, and they appreciated that the YMCA was reaching out to help. With the participation of local nonprofits, businesses and volunteers, the Y established an emergency food distribution program for children and youth, ages 2–18. Starting on March 23, we served packaged meals to over 1,000 youth a day.
Q: What role did authentic youth engagement play in the emergency youth meal program?
Powell: At first, and much like communities across the country, the idea was to distribute meal packages just twice a week. Some of the other peers and I have experience with childhood hunger, and we didn’t think this was a great idea. It’s not how hunger works. If you give young people four days of food, that food is going to be gone the next day, and they are going to be hungry on the following days. Based on that conversation, the YMCA decided to distribute meals twice a day, every day. We did home deliveries, too, for parents and children who were unable to access the distribution locations.
Q: What did you do to maintain connections with youth in the community?
Powell: Every day we sent out a two-page newsletter called the Y Street Journal. It included activities — “the workout of the day,” puzzles and such. We asked questions to check in on young people’s emotions — for example, “What is your day on a scale of 1–5 (1 being the worst day ever and 5 being the best day ever)? Why? What could make it better?” If they returned the newsletter with answers, they received a little prize. The Y Street Journal was one way that we were engaging youth and also subtly taking the pulse on how they were doing in their homes. We were able to flag young people we had concerns about and reach out to them.
Q: What are you doing for Iowa’s Department of Human Rights?
Powell: Half of my job is overseeing the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD), which collects data on older youth in foster care. Doing surveys of 17-year-olds, I was checking in on what they needed. Most of them were OK, because they were still in the system. If they needed something, I connected them with services or support. I also oversee the social media accounts — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter — for NYTD’s work in Iowa. I scroll through the news feeds to see if youth need anything. If there was something troubling, we would reach out and offer services.
The other half of my job is coordinating youth development work, making sure that state agencies are using positive youth development and authentic youth engagement in their work. I also oversee the Iowa Collaboration for Youth Development (ICYD), which includes representatives from the public systems serving the state’s youth. ICYD is forming two youth action squads — one for COVID-19 and another for racial justice. The facilitators for the squads are three current Department of Human Rights program youth. We will be providing leadership opportunities and compensation for the 25 members of each squad, using a racial equity lens in public policy advocacy and an understanding of data and research. We are going to convene youth who typically have not had leadership roles before and who are marginalized from government or leadership because of discrimination and have been historically excluded from decision-making. We also intentionally are recruiting youth from the NYTD population who have had experience with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. After their training, we’ll empower all 50 youth in both squads to develop an action plan addressing either their local communities or the state.
Q: Any final thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on the systems serving young people?
Powell: In summing up COVID, either adults in the system showed up or they didn’t. Some successfully made the mental-model shift from blaming kids to collaborating with them. For example, before the pandemic, some caseworkers had been getting on their youth about, “Why aren’t you going to school? Why are you treating your foster parents disrespectfully?” — things like that. When COVID first hit, they were more like, “What do you need?” And then we as a community did everything we could to meet those needs. I wish this shift to a culture of collaboration could stick around forever, but I don’t think it will. I’ve already seen instances of going back to the old mental model.