May is National Foster Care Month, a campaign to highlight the needs and increase the well-being of youth in the foster care system. This month, we’ll share a series of blog posts that explore the issue in depth.

What if Sherlock Holmes worked in social service? The idea isn’t too far-fetched – in fact, it’s happening right here in San Diego. Since 2016, YMCA Youth & Family Services has been impacting the lives of youth in foster care with its program: Permanent Connections.

Permanent Connections performs a relentless search to identify important connections for youth who have been in foster care for many years and are disconnected from their biological family. Once they identify connections, the program helps both parties process the intense emotions that may surface as they prepare to meet. When youth maintain connections to important aspects of their culture, they develop a healthy sense of identity and live safely and meaningfully within their communities. The program is funded by the County of San Diego and increases connectedness, decreases dependence on the formal service system, and enhances family-driven decision making. The program combines strategies from the Kevin A. Campbell Family Finding model to locate and engage connections with the 3 5 7 model to help grieve traumatic loss and re-build relationships with the goals of well-being, safety, and permanency. The intense nature of the 3 5 7 model made the program realize the need for a place for youth to process emotions so they can better understand themselves and what they want from relationships as they develop permanent connections.

This realization resulted in the More Than_____ Youth Showcase, held on May 8 in San Diego, an event designed to empower youth in foster care by sharing their stories through dance, film, literature, music, photography, and visual arts. The event took a year to plan and heavily incorporated youth and family voice to make sure the night reflected what the youth and their families wanted to share.

Read our interview with Permanent Connections program director, Charmaine Utz, below to hear how the showcase came to be and the transformation that occurs when youth in foster care share their talents, emotions, cultures, identities, and life stories through art in the presence of supportive connections.

Creating a Supportive Space for Youth in Foster Care*

The Y: What inspired you to put on the showcase?

Charmaine Utz: In talking with my staff regularly, I started to hear that there were a lot of kids in the program who felt they didn’t have a voice and people weren’t listening. And some of our work doing creative activities morphed into tapping into kids’ gifts and realized how healing it was. I’ve always known art had power, but when you hear lyrics that young people write or feel their emotions in paint and drawings, you really see how important it is and how much it impacts their understanding of themselves and relationships. I came to understand we play a huge role as a program to shine a light on this because the foster care system generally doesn’t recognize that.

So the event itself came to be for two reasons. First, to tell youth that creative expression should be a thing you’re allowed to do and something that should be celebrated. And second, to invite the stakeholders to see how system work can be done a little differently.

Y: Now that the event happened, what do you hope the audience walked away with?

CU: I hope that everyone understands that it’s our shared responsibility to continue to create moments and hold space for kids to express emotions, not force them to control their behaviors and discount what they’re feeling.

Y: What was your favorite part of the evening?

CU: I loved that we created a space that so many different people came to – there was a beautiful mix of people from various backgrounds, experiences, cultures. It was a gathering of youth and families, people from the County of San Diego, the broader community, and YMCA staff all sharing the moment together and creating a warm and supportive night. In spite of all their differences, the event felt very intimate with people who didn’t necessarily know each other well.

Y: What impact has the event had on your participants?

CU: I definitely knew the kids were excited. I heard from them often leading up to the event, and they would say “thank you for caring” or “this shows us we matter” or “a lot of people don’t care about us.” They were truly appreciative of the chance to do the event, and it was incredible to see that all our participants had loved ones there to support them. You could tell the kids had a real sense of pride and excitement to be able to showcase their talents in front of loved ones since they don’t usually get a chance to do that. I’m proud to say that, because of our event, some kids realized they have a gift and want to pursue it or at the very least realized that what they have matters.

Y: What about the impact on your staff?

CU: Let’s ask one of them! (Exits the room and returns with Permanent Connections Family Engagement Specialist, Bola Ruff) Bola, how did the event impact you?

BR: It’s really hard to put into words, but I’d say fulfilling. I was able to experience the whole process, starting with the youth as they submitted art and throughout the preparation groups and bonding that came from that. Then to see it all come together on the day – it was a blur, but we got see what had been an idea we were working on for so long come to life before our eyes. You could see the kids felt important and heard, and it was very fulfilling to be a part of that. (Bola exits)

Y: How does this relate to broader issues involving the foster care system and child welfare?

CU: Maintaining connections to biological family or other supportive adults is such a hot topic in the child welfare field these days because it’s a major factor in the youth’s well-being. We’re proud that our program provides such a vital service, and we’re so glad CWS is invested in the issue to fund a program that does important work.

*Interview has been edited for clarity