This past winter break I was give the opportunity to travel to Charleston, South Carolina with a group of 11 other CMU students on my third Alternative Break (more blogs to come). The social justice issue my group focused on was youth advocacy, and we spent a week volunteering with the Carolina Youth Development Center (CYDC).
Starting off, I was not prepared for the impact that this break would have on me mentally, nor did I expect it to strengthen what I already thought to be a strong desire to work with children in the foster care system. I thought I was fairly knowledgable about youth advocacy and the issues surrounding the topic, however, this break gave me the opportunity to truly immerse myself in the lives of foster children and allow me to see just how severe the scale of the issue is.
We spent everyday at the CYDC, a campus that consists of: houses for the foster children, recreational and educational facilities, and a main office building. This center serves as a model community for other foster homes, as they provide numerous and essential services to their children that most foster facilities do not. They teach the children there how to work on cars, computer programming, musical instruments, and healthy lifestyle habits so that they can develop necessary skills to assist in getting them ahead in life. However, this does not make the CYDC perfect, as funds are limited and the impossible feat of giving each child the love and attention they deserve.
The first three days at the CYDC were spent sorting presents for the children that were donated from sponsor families. These presents were things that the children were in need of, and would be given at their annual christmas party. In addition to this, we also performed demolition on one of the campus houses that was being remodeled into a transition home for children that would age out of the system. This would serve as a foothold into the real world, and allow the new young adults to find their place in society before just being thrown into the streets to fend for themselves.
The last two days were spent in direct interactions with the children of the CYDC. These two days provided me with the most fulfilling, yet heartbreaking experience I have ever had. I connected with one child in particular, and learned about their journey leading up to the CYDC. As their story unfolded, it took everything in me not to fall apart. I realized that even with everything the CYDC does for these children, it is still not enough for them to grow into healthy, thriving individuals. It was after this moment that my goal of becoming an agent of social change in the world of foster care was transformed into a burning desire.
After our 52 hours of community service at the CYDC, we returned to our own community to share what we learned, and become active citizens in trying to bring about change for children in need. I have taken what I have learned from this experience and applied them to my social work classes. I will continue to apply this knowledge as well as educating myself so that one day I can shape the policies that will result in much needed change in the foster care world.