Mason McFalls, a resident and native of Georgia, entered foster care at the age of 7 with his brother. He recalls the church as being one of the only stable places in his world. His pastor was one of his most effectual mentors, helping his grades skyrocket. When he matriculated into University of Georgia and graduated with honors, he was proud to note that for the first time in his life he wasn’t labeled the foster kid and recalls, “I had seven job offers right out of college and none were handouts from being a foster kid. That felt great.” He now works for Morgan Stanley, has a steady girlfriend, and hopes to get married in the next year.
Last week, the Christian Alliance for Orphans hosted a webinar and invited three former Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) Foster Youth Interns (FYI) to share their experiences in foster care and encourage churches in ways they can help foster youth. The FYI Program is a highly esteemed Congressional internship for young adults who spent time in the foster care system. Through the program, federal policymakers see firsthand the experiences of foster youth, and as a result use their power to make legislative change. In addition to Mason (2008 FYI Intern) the other panelists were Brittany Jean (2008 FYI Intern) and Richard Terrell (2011 FYI Intern) who each spoke briefly about their time in foster care and shared that mentors, foster families, and church life were inspirations to succeed.
Brittany Jean, also a native of Georgia, entered the system at 14, and says, “At that time I had no real direction…when I came into foster care. My foster parents were ministers and when I came they showed me love and the church became my second family…I came out of my shell and became the person I was supposed to become.” Married in 2009, Brittany remarked that more people from her church family, who mentored and clothed her, came to her wedding than from her biological family. She attended Georgia State University, majored in political science and interned for Congressman John Lewis.
Without hesitation, Brittany states the best way to change the foster system is within the church: “With the same love my foster parents gave me, I try to give to other people. People ask ‘what can I do, what can I do?’ I think there are a lot of misconceptions. I think there’s a personal [touch] of being a foster parent or a mentor, but you can also support financially, or raising community awareness, letting your church know, or giving them the option, you know, that these kids are here and they’re open and available for adoption, let the love of God lead you.”
Richard Terrell, resident and native of Minnesota, grew up in kinship care, a type of foster care in which a child is raised by a relative not in the nuclear family, and was raised by his grandmother. Richard entered foster care at a young age because of his mother’s drug addiction, and his father, although present, was not interested in having a son. He cites his pastor as his stand-in father, although he also views him as an older brother, a friend, a role model and a mentor.
Richard shared that his pastor encouraged him to apply for college, even when his grades weren’t great, he did not think he was smart enough, and his mother told him it did not matter. When he was accepted his freshman year to University of North Dakota (and later transferred to the North Central University in Minnesota) his pastor drove him to college and stayed the first week to set him up in the local area with a church and help him move in –and as Richard remembers “as if I were his own son.” Recently graduated, Richard now mentors other foster youth through his church, knowing the impact one mentor can have on the life of a foster kid.
How can communities of faith help?
When CCAI’s executive director, Kathleen Strottman opened up the Webinar discussion for questions, the panelists discussed some of the hardest challenges they faced and how the community can band together to help foster youth. Mason said that although he worked hard in school, moving school systems kept him consistently behind. Every school was on a different system; some were on semester, some on trimesters, block schedules, transitional schedules, floaters, and there were always different textbooks. If he was lucky enough to be in the same book, then the classes were on a different page. He felt like he was constantly playing catch up, always trying to teach himself. “That’s where the church stepped in,” he remembered. People offered to tutor him and donate books. By rallying together, churches could keep track of the schools in each district that have foster youth in need.
Today, as a foster youth advocate in his church, Mason works closely with a local youth center and hopes to change the pervasive stereotypes that foster kids are bad kids so that more church members open their homes up to foster youth. He cites the church as the reason he was extricated from his biological parents, who were addicted drug users. The close knit community never once wavered in their ties and continued to support him over the years by sending him clothes and care packages no matter how many times he moved schools, homes or districts. Mason concluded: “sometimes I [was made to feel] like I cried wolf so many times the foster workers wouldn’t listen. That’s where the church steps in…when there’s something really going on, there’s someone really there to listen to you.”
Disappointed with many of her foster family placements, Brittany said, “It’s hard to come home to a house that doesn’t actually care about you. And I don’t think that’s fair to anyone.” But said that the church is a great place to recruit quality foster families.
Richard is a passionate proponent of grants and more scholarships for foster youth, especially those pursuing higher education saying, “I believe all educational systems should have some sort of scholarships set up for foster youth. I had to work 30-40 hour weeks just to pay for my education. And sometimes it wasn’t enough.” In fact, this was the very topic Richard wrote about in the annual Foster Youth Internship Report. To ease this burden, churches can raise funds to directly assist youth in the community or within their congregations go to college or even purchase school supplies and books.
In the end it was Brittany who summed it up all so well: “It doesn’t matter where I came from, it only matters where I’m going. Learning that really changed me…learning that foster care doesn’t end at eighteen.”
To listen to the webinar in its entirety and to view a list of “25 Things to Help Foster Youth” click HERE.