Young People and Child Welfare Leaders Partner in South Carolina

Posted March 22, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young man speaking

With tech­ni­cal assis­tance from the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, 15 young peo­ple who make up a new state youth advi­so­ry coun­cil — Youth Engage­ment Advo­cates! (YEA!) — for South Carolina’s Depart­ment of Social Ser­vices (DSS) are col­lab­o­rat­ing with the agency to devel­op solu­tions that improve the lives of chil­dren, young peo­ple and their families.

About YEA!

Hav­ing orga­nized online, YEA! is among the first statewide child wel­fare youth coun­cils ever formed,” says Michael Leach, DSS state direc­tor, about the group that includes young peo­ple from every region of the state, reflect­ing a diver­si­ty of expe­ri­ences, fam­i­ly struc­tures and racial and eth­nic back­grounds. Their lead­er­ship and advo­ca­cy efforts have already had an impact on our depart­men­t’s trans­for­ma­tion efforts.”

Since its incep­tion a few months ago, YEA! has devel­oped a vision and a set of core val­ues to inform its work, helped to edu­cate pol­i­cy­mak­ers through leg­isla­tive tes­ti­mo­ny and part­nered with oth­ers to build pub­lic aware­ness — such as par­tic­i­pat­ing in DSS’ recent launch of its reform agenda.

Mem­bers of YEA! have under­scored their mis­sion in let­ters and emails to agency lead­ers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers: We believe strong­ly that we will not allow our past and its trau­ma — as some of us have expe­ri­enced home­less­ness, insti­tu­tion­al­ism and incar­cer­a­tion — to define our future, and we will stay com­mit­ted to advo­cat­ing for a bet­ter tomorrow.”

Rang­ing in age from 16 to 25, YEA! mem­bers include high school and col­lege stu­dents, young par­ents, those liv­ing in group homes and those liv­ing on their own. The group has been build­ing net­works of young advo­cates across the state since its vir­tu­al kick­off last sum­mer. Its mem­bers meet biweek­ly by video­con­fer­ence and are lever­ag­ing tex­ting and social media to help devel­op and strength­en their advo­ca­cy agen­da with a focus on equi­ty in health care, edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties, afford­able hous­ing, trans­porta­tion and career pathways.

Our dream is to be a mod­el for oth­ers around the coun­try,” says Robin Bran­ham, an 18-year-old YEA! mem­ber who attends Colum­bia Col­lege. YEA! We can.”

How Casey Is Sup­port­ing Youth Leadership

To help sharp­en their advo­ca­cy and lead­er­ship skills, sev­er­al YEA! mem­bers par­tic­i­pat­ed in Casey’s Acti­vat­ing Youth Engage­ment Sum­mit, which the Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive® host­ed in August.

Attend­ing the vir­tu­al sum­mit gave us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn and share ideas from around the coun­try,” says Ma’Lajah For­man, a YEA! leader, who is 19 and lives alone after hav­ing aged out of fos­ter care. She is study­ing to become a nurse prac­ti­tion­er while work­ing part time at a phar­ma­cy and full time as a hos­pi­tal phle­botomist. We came away inspired and ready to redou­ble our efforts.”

In addi­tion to attend­ing the sum­mit, YEA! mem­bers part­nered with Blan­ca Goetz, a Jim Casey Young Fel­low from Rhode Island, who has assist­ed the group by pro­vid­ing train­ing on top­ics such as lead­er­ship devel­op­ment, how to effec­tive­ly share per­son­al sto­ries and pol­i­cy advocacy.

YEA!’s work aligns with the Foundation’s Thrive by 25® effort, which is ded­i­cat­ing at least half of its invest­ments over the next decade to improv­ing the well-being and prospects of youth and young adults aged 1424. Work­ing togeth­er with young peo­ple, Casey seeks to make sure that young peo­ple have the fam­i­ly con­nec­tions, rela­tion­ships, com­mu­ni­ties and edu­ca­tion­al and employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties they need to be able to thrive by 25.

The Casey Foun­da­tion believes deeply in the pow­er of young peo­ple to help shape their futures,” says San­dra Gas­ca-Gon­za­lez, vice pres­i­dent of Casey’s Cen­ter for Sys­tems Inno­va­tion. Youth advi­so­ry coun­cils such as YEA! help us demon­strate that young peo­ple should not only have a seat at the table, but they should also be work­ing with us hand-in-hand to decide the menu. We have a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op and advo­cate for solu­tions with young peo­ple, not just for them.”

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