Janessa, 23, is a foster care alumna who will graduate in the fall of 2012 from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in criminology. She began advocating for change in the foster care system at age 14 and then completed an internship with Foster Club, where she received advocacy and public speaking training. Janessa serves on the youth council for the Cedar Rapids chapter of the Iowa-based youth group Achieving Maximum Potential (AMP), which gives youth the tools to educate the community about issues surrounding foster care. Janessa has spoken at conferences and trainings across the country, as well as at events at her college and in her community, educating people about the issues that affect foster children and youth, with a focus on the importance of permanency.
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How did you get involved with the Transitional Living Program (TLP) and what did you learn in the program that helped you to transition to adulthood?
I entered foster care at 14. I went from a shelter to different placements within the foster care system and then was adopted at 16, but it was not a good fit. So, I was on my own again at 18 while I was attending college. I got involved with the TLP when I was 19 as I did not have a stable place to go. TLP is run by Foundation 2, an organization in Cedar Rapids that offers crisis prevention and intervention programs and runs the Foundation 2 Youth Shelter. I found out about TLP from someone who was in the program and I applied and got accepted.
As a part of TLP, we met as a group once a week and also had to meet once a week individually with a caseworker. We learned about budgeting, setting up bank accounts, paying off debts, creating a resume, and how to sustain employment. We also learned how to wash clothes, cook, and we did community service together. I am forever grateful to the staff that worked with me while I was in TLP. TLP was a very positive experience for me because it provided me with the skills that I needed to successfully transition to adulthood. I honestly don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for that program.
What do you think made you so successful in the program?
I had a very caring social worker while I was in the program. I also was very motivated to get out of the program and successfully be on my own. I knew that the only way that I would do this was if I followed the rules and took advantage of every opportunity that they had to offer. My goal of moving out of TLP and transferring back to a state university, graduating from college, and being a successful independent adult really was my driving force in the program. I also received a lot of encouragement from my social worker. I still keep in contact with her to this day and miss getting the one-on-one time that we got while in TLP. Many of the things that a lot of foster youth are lacking today could be filled if they had at least one permanent positive adult connection.
What about your experiences has inspired you to pursue advocacy work?
I was inspired to pursue advocacy work because there are so many youth who just need the tools to succeed. They already have the ability and potential but many do not know it. Advocating for youth voices to continue to be included in the conversations about changes being made to improve foster care is the only thing that will actually improve foster care. It is my duty to continue on in my advocacy and do what I can for my “brothers and sisters” in care.