The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Create Your Own Family and Other Advice
Represent staff

Kenyon Lee Whitman is the Program Director of the Office of Foster Youth Support Services at the University of California, Riverside, where he oversees the Guardian Scholars Program. A foster care alumnus, Whitman, 28, talked to Represent about how he heals and moves on from his time in foster care.

Q: What was your foster care experience like?

A: I went into care soon after I was born and was adopted at the age of 1 for four or five years. That didn’t work out, and I went back into foster care. I was in five placements before I found stable placement with a foster mom, who I now call my “grandmother.” I was with her from age 7 to 18, when I emancipated.

Q: What did you do when you left care?

A: When I aged out, I went to college, even though I didn’t have the best grades in high school. College had a place to live (dorms); I’d get some money (financial aid); I’d have something to do (class).

I didn’t do well at first, but the summer before my junior year I joined a program called Renaissance Scholars that supports foster youth at Fresno State. They offered wraparound services, holistic programs, but the main thing was having an adult role model to go to on a regular basis. I saw the coordinator, Kizzy Lopez, as a gatekeeper of knowledge, and I looked up to her.

She took me under her wing and offered me a job in her program as a student intern. Having her advice and her guidance helped me turn around my academics. She showed me how to love learning as opposed to just going for grades.

I did a master’s in higher educational leadership and now I’m getting a PhD at the University of San Diego. My dissertation will look at identity and academic advantages and disadvantages among foster kids. Were you involved in a pre-college program? Did you take community college classes in high school? Did you have access to foster care-specific programs like Guardian Scholars and Renaissance Scholars?

Q: What’s hard about relating to people when you grew up in care?

A: The thing you have to navigate is the patronizing, the “Aww, I’m sorry.” Do people want to form relationships with you because they feel sorry for you?

image by YC-Art Dept

Another big challenge is you don’t have a traditional family, and you may not know your biological parents. But everyone wants family. So I’ve created my family. I call Kizzy Lopez “Auntie.” One of her kids calls me “Uncle,” another calls me “Brother.”

I’ve learned to stop worrying about how to introduce people. I don’t have to explain that my aunt’s not really my aunt.

Q: How should you share your foster care experience with new people?

A: Be unapologetic about how you create family. One assignment I always resented in class was to make a family tree. Coming from foster care, I lack family privilege. But now I’d put my foster mom on the tree, and I challenge any teacher to not give me an A on that bad boy.

Tell your story slowly, but don’t beat yourself up if you blurt something out. Learn how to politely say, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that.”

Q: Any other tips for our readers on taking care of yourself after aging out?

A: My mentor, Kizzy, advised me, “Get some mental help. At university you get counseling for free, so get it now.” I resisted, but therapy was the beginning of my healing.

I distance myself from people who make me feel bad. Instead I surround myself with people who have positive energy and love me for who I am.

I also heal myself with yoga, dancing, and doing spoken-word poetry. Getting lost in my work is therapeutic, and I still go to therapy. I have a circle of people I can rely on. I’m learning to love myself; I don’t think there’s a fast way to get there.

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