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We need more mentors for California’s kids in foster care

Dr. Kay Ramsey, Ph.D.

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Written by Dr. Kay Ramsey, Ph.D., and Executive Branch Director for Bethany in Southern California.

I was born into foster care. My mother was in prison when she was raped and became pregnant with me. Like many mothers who must surrender their children to foster care because of addiction, disability, mental illness, or incarceration, she didn’t have a choice whether or not to keep me. And, as with all children entering the child welfare system, I didn’t have a choice.

I was more fortunate than most because when I was three years old, I was adopted. My adoptive mother was a single mother, but she was a remarkably strong and loving woman. Thanks to her, I graduated high school – an accomplishment fewer than a third of kids in foster care achieve – and I went on to attend Cal State LA – her alma mater. Only 2.5% of children who grow up in foster care graduate from a four-year college.

A devastating downturn

But just before my graduation, my life turned upside down – my adoptive mother passed away, and that same year, I received a letter from my biological mother in prison. It was the first time I had heard from her, and the first time I learned that I was a product of rape. I hoped I might be able to have a relationship with her, but she didn’t want to meet me; a face-to-face meeting, she felt, would only stir up traumatic memories.

For the first time in my life, I was completely alone, I was once again a motherless daughter. I had no money and no support system. For a short time, I was homeless, until I found a job. My new boss did something remarkable – she gave me the money to pay my first month’s rent. This act of kindness from a near stranger moved me to tears because my adoptive mother’s family pushed me out on the streets.

The power of mentorship

Against all odds I was able to thrive beyond adversity to a level or resiliency I didn’t realize I had. My experiences inspired me to become a mentor to other young women and to advocate for mentorship for children in foster care and other disadvantaged youth.

I was fortunate to have several mentors in my life: Joe Rouzan, a retired Police Officer/Fire Fighter and an Executive Director of a workforce nonprofit in Los Angeles, helped me through those early years after college and has remined a lifetime mentor. When a dear friend committed suicide, he helped me navigate a career change from architecture to child welfare and clinical psychology.

Dr. Thomas Thompson, a retired Dean of Education from Albany State University, gave me the additional confidence I needed throughout my journey to earn my Ph.D. in Public Policy and Nonprofit Leadership.

I also learned that great mentors might not be easily accessible, so I turned to listening to motivational speakers online. Dr. Eric Thomas, my favorite, has motivated and inspired me to reach my fullest protentional and reminded me of my Why - his words are raw, gritty and real. The fact that he, too, went from homeless to obtaining his Ph.D. resonated with me.

But I often wonder: If I had had a mentor during my childhood years, as I was sorting through the emotions of adoption and being a product of the child welfare system, would I have had someone to turn to when my mother passed away? Would I have had to face that difficult time alone?

On a mission to help kids in California

At any given time, there are 50,000 kids in foster care in the State of California – nearly 20% of the nation’s total foster youth population. Most of these children have experienced some form of trauma. Understandably, students who are exposed to trauma and violence have higher suspension and expulsion rates and lower school attendance and grades.

Mentorship can help them navigate some of the challenges that lead to poor academic performance and behavior. Research suggests that mentoring for children in foster care has positive impacts on mental health, educational functioning and peer relationships.

Today, as the Executive Branch Director for Bethany Christian Services in Southern California, I know this for sure: we all need human connection, but these kids need it more than most. I have seen firsthand the need in our community to connect more youth in foster care with adults who can instill hope, encourage change and provide a safe place for children and teens to share their stories.

A good mentor can model positive behavior, teach life skills and empower kids to take on challenges with confidence. A strong relationship with a mentor can also give children in foster care a sense of belonging that they may never have experienced.

There are many opportunities for members of our community to become mentors to foster and adopted children – whether it’s through programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Foster Care to Success, the Social Justice Learning Institute or CUSN’s Adoption Promotion & Support Services.

The Department of Child and Family Services can also refer potential mentors to specific organizations with the greatest needs. Children in foster care who are transitioning out of the foster care system are especially in need of mentors, because they may have lost their previous support networks.

Mentors can help guide students in making good decisions; navigate peer relationships; apply for scholarships; prepare them for college; and be a support network for daily struggles. But it all starts with an open heart and a willingness to commit to a child. These kids need a caring, consistent, and compassionate adult who is able to share his or her life experiences and the wisdom learned along the way.

Mentorship isn’t a cure-all. But it can help a child know that he or she is not alone. Sometimes, what matters most is just having someone to call.

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