by Sarah Kim
In 2016, Fostering Media Connections launched its Youth Voice program, which teaches journalism and other pre-professional skills to youth in foster care. To date, the program has published more than 100 articles and impacted the lives of more than 200 young adults, mainly persons 18 years or older. Youth Voice participants have gone on to attend and graduate college, pursue careers in various fields, including entertainment, law and writing, and become prominent activists in the child welfare system. We reconnected with three of Youth Voice’s earliest participants: Johna Rivers, Tisha Ortiz and Georgette Todd, to see how their lives have progressed since their time with Youth Voice.
Johna: Freedom and Healing through Storytelling
Johna Rivers is a 28-year-old artist and activist currently working full-time at Jimmy Kimmel Live. Read her first Youth Voice article, which highlights the importance of including youth voices when reimagining foster care, here.
Johna, tell us a little about yourself.
Rivers: I’m Johna Rivers. I’ve come a long way. I went through a lot of trauma in the foster care system, and so once I found my voice and the power in telling my story and owning my truth, I never stopped. There were so many intersectionalities to my life: I was a foster kid. I lived in the hood. I am a queer woman. I’ve been homeless. I just wanted people to know that the challenges are gonna come. But on the other side of it is always something beautiful.
Thank you so much for sharing. On the topic of sharing stories, it seems like you wrote a lot about your relationship with film, art and expression. What did it mean for you to write that and see it published?
Rivers: It felt good. I was introduced to writing as a way of expression when I was about 14 years old. I remember feeling free in that space. So being able to grow up and write a full piece and get that published, not once, not twice, but six times, on a professional website…and not only that, but other websites picked it up. It became bigger than what I expected.
Absolutely. So now that we’re in 2022, what is life like for you?
Rivers: I’m just at a point now where I’m like, “How can I take all that I poured into everybody else and pour it into myself and my dreams, and see where I go?” I’m working at Jimmy Kimmel Live full-time. I really enjoy doing what I do over there. So I think in 2022, today, I am extremely grateful for where I’m at. I’m healing from a lot of trauma, from relationships, from life, from just everything. I was in a relationship that challenged me and I’m growing from that. I’m in therapy, writing, making music again, and getting ready for the next chapter of my life.
Is there anything else that you might want to add?
Rivers: I realized that time is nonexistent. I’m just focusing on getting by day to day and tackling what I can, knowing that I’m gonna get there, no matter what. As long as I have that faith and my bones and my body and my spirit, I feel like that’s all that matters. And sometimes just because a person looks like they have it all together don’t mean that they ain’t struggling, and they don’t have hard times and fall upon challenges and sometimes just need some support. Even if you had to be strong your whole life, don’t be scared to reach out and ask for help.
Tisha: Personal Experience Drives Policy Change
Tisha Ortiz is an aspiring paralegal and recent college graduate. Read her first Youth Voice article, which advocates for more responsible psychotropic medication regulation for youth in foster care, here.
What did it mean for you to write your first Youth Voice article and see it published?
Ortiz: I was excited, I felt accomplished. The article talks a lot about my past and how I was on medication, and seeing it now it’s like, wow I can’t believe I did that. Because of the tireless efforts that we had done to advocate for this issue to help foster youth not be over medicated, six bills were passed in the state of California.
Tisha wrote in her article about some of the bills that she advocated for to protect youth in foster care from medication mismanagement: “While working with the National Center for Youth Law, I have advocated for various bills including two current bills: Senate Bill (SB) 1174 and 1291. SB 1174 is a prescriber-oversight bill that establishes a process for the Medical Board of California to review and investigate psychotropic medication prescription patterns among California children. SB 1291 would improve the availability of mental health services for children in foster care. SB 1174 has recently passed through the Assembly Health and Business and Professions committees and SB 1291 recently passed through Assembly Health committee; both are now on to Assembly Appropriations in August.”
That’s incredible. And how is life now?
Ortiz: I graduated from college just recently, so I’m proud of that. I’m going to start a paralegal certification soon. I think I want to do a paralegal with family law with foster care and adoption and custody battles.
It sounds more like a full circle moment, from writing about the need for legislation change to yourself becoming one of those decision makers. Congratulations. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Ortiz: If it weren’t for the help of Anna Johnson and Bill Grimm, who passed away a few years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to write such a good article that was published and helped spur change.
Tisha’s original article also mentions Bill Grimm: “‘SB 1174 and SB 1291 create additional safeguards for foster children who are given psychotropic medications beyond those the legislation created last year,” said Bill Grimm, senior attorney on the psychotropic medications team at NCYL, in an email exchange. “They fill in gaps in the checks and balances over the use of psychotropic drugs given to foster children that were not addressed during the last legislative session.’”
Georgette: Navigating the True Cost of College
Georgette Todd is a speaker, author, and foster care and child abuse advocate. As a first generation college graduate, she advocated for student debt forgiveness for former foster youth in one of her first Youth Voice articles. In this interview, she discusses how President Biden’s latest student debt response has had a limited impact on relieving her financial burdens. Learn more about her story and advocacy efforts at www.georgettetodd.com.
How are student loans currently impacting your life?
As much has been reported about President Biden’s student loan forgiveness, which I’m eligible for as I had Pell Grants, it is too soon to say if it has helped since the rollout has been extremely complicated so far, I’ve had issues with logging into my accounts due to web traffic, and there’s no student loan forgiveness application ready yet. I am looking into the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan since I’ve worked in nonprofits since 2007 and I currently work at one now. I will have to apply for that plan before Oct. 31 of this year.
I am a FirstGen graduate and I am very proud of this accomplishment, especially since I moved over a dozen times during my high school years in foster care. I do worry however, that I won’t get assistance because my loans are older. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been sold this idea that every person who manages to get a degree will get a high-paying or higher paying job afterward. That has not always been my reality. I also had a trauma related mental health crisis in my early 30’s that drastically affected my employment and derailed my career for quite some time. While going through this difficult period, the interest on my multiple student loans accrued.
I’m thrilled to see the younger generation get a lot more support today but I know I’m not the only “older” former foster youth who struggles in this area of student debt repayment. It appears that there is no space for our sector of the population to speak out. No one seems to care about former foster youth after the age of 26. There’s an abrupt cut off of services and attention to all former foster youth after a certain age. I find it strange that no one ever talks about the long-term effects of childhood trauma and foster care. I wish there was a discussion on former foster youth post-collegiate age. How are they faring? How many become homeowners? How many are saddled with student loan debt well into middle age?
College has helped me acquire the skills I need in order to do the really good work that I do. I just wish I wasn’t still paying so much for it nearly two decades later.
Very sorry to hear that, but thank you for sharing your experience. Otherwise, how is life now?
I work at Connect Our Kids, a nonprofit that provides free family search and engagement tools for child welfare professionals all across the country. My role focuses on outreach duties such as research, generating reports, following up with new users as well as reaching out to collect stories of successful family connections. I interview family search experts who use our software to find relatives and supportive adults for kids in foster care. I write their stories for our Connections Matters blog series and I feel honored to be part of the mission to bring our kids stability and unconditional love.