Friday was a day for Kern County foster youth to be heard.
Foster kids can often feel alone, disconnected from their peers and outside of support groups that can be a critical help to them.
But on Friday, at Bakersfield College, they were the center of everything at the third Annual Youth Empowering Success! Conference.
Alexis Duran, 18, and Carlos Lopez, 19, were two of a small group of foster youth that started the first YES! Club at Bakersfield High School three years ago.
On Friday Duran remembered the first conference at BHS — just a handful of kids.
Three years later, there were more than 200 people at the full-day conference with a professional motivational speaker — himself a foster youth.
Leaders from the juvenile courts, Department of Human Services, Kern County Probation, group homes and other organizations that are intimately involved in foster youth’s lives were on hand, too, speaking on panels with foster youth about topics the youth developed on their own.
“We created a family. We created a safe spot for us,” Duran said.
Ian Anderson with the Foster Youth Service Coordinating Program at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office outlined some of the things that make the YES! Program that he, BHS foster youth counselor Katie Price and students like Duran created just three years ago, so important to these young people.
Foster youth at schools are often outcasts because they moves schools often and are hidden from each other by privacy protections.
That makes them feel isolated and alone.
Students don’t have to participate in YES! but if they do, they join a group of other foster students on campus and have a ready-made support group, Anderson said.
Only another foster youth can truly support a foster youth, he said.
In the past three years the program has gone from Bakersfield High to nearly every high school in the Kern High School District, high schools in Tehachapi, Bakersfield College and elementary schools in Delano.
“It’s just exploded,” Anderson said.
The goal is to get the program into every school from elementary to college. He and Price are even presenting the concept to a statewide education conference in April.
Friday’s conference, Anderson said, was also about giving foster youth power over their destiny.
The agenda for the conference was developed by the youth.
And they don’t come to listen to an expert tell them about the foster system — they get to sit down on panels next to the people who run the foster program and have a dialogue, Anderson said.
The professionals were there to learn from the students, he said.
“Youth can advocate and have their voices be heard here,” Anderson said.
For Lopez, that meant sitting on a juvenile justice panel with a juvenile court judge and leaders of the probation department and others.
That interaction is critical, he said. Foster kids feel alone even when they’re surrounded by other people. Adults with power need to understand how to fix that.
“(This) gives the adults more of an insight on a foster youth side,” he said. “They can ask how to make it a more stable foundation rather than pulling people apart.”
Lopez said he moved to Kern County at age 10 with his mother and, while she was a great mom, they were poor.
“She did everything in her power to make ends meet,” Lopez said.
But after the bills were paid there usually wasn’t money for food. So he started stealing to help feed his family.
When his mom “caught on” she called the police and he was arrested. He spent two weeks in juvenile hall and then years in group homes.
He thanks his mother for that now.
“She changed my life,” Lopez said.
She always came to his group homes to see him and, despite the isolation he felt, he helped start the YES! program, graduated from Bakersfield High School and is now working for a life insurance agency as a trainee while he gets his state license.
He’s proud of his foster youth history and said seeing how fast YES! has grown feels empowering.
Duran spoke Friday on a panel about how one caring adult can make a difference for a foster youth.
For her that adult was Price, her counselor at BHS.
Duran said she got into the foster system at age 13 when drugs and the neglect that existed in her mother’s home prompted Child Protective Services to take she and her siblings.
She was briefly placed with an aunt, but then moved because the aunt imagined the 13-year-old as competition for the man in her life.
Separated from her entire life and living with strangers Duran said she had no belief in herself.
“I quit. I tried to give up,” she said.
But her therapist and Price wouldn’t let her.
Price told her she had to keep fighting and there was a future out there for her.
“I’m meant to do something greater,” Duran said. “I want to be a motivational speaker.”