On a recent Monday evening, a young man strummed a guitar as he performed an original song for his peers—physically scattered around Oregon but gathered virtually in a video conference room. Listening intently, the other youth waved their fingers in the “sparkle gesture” to show their appreciation for the powerful piece.
The youth on the call were all members of Our Children Oregon’s Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC), an advocacy program led by former and current foster youth ages 14 through 25. After the shelter-in-place directive was instituted in their state in late March, many young people in the program shared with Lisa McMahon, OFYC program director, that they were struggling and felt the need for connection and support.
“They were talking about their mental health, and acknowledging their need for connection and support,” says McMahon. “They weren’t saying, ‘I really need to talk to a therapist,’ but all the things they typically do for self-care, like getting together with their peers, now weren’t possible, and that was creating a problem for their mental health.”
Describing their experience of the pandemic, more than one young person said “foster care prepared me for this,” referring to the way it prevented them from spending time with people they love and doing things they enjoy doing. Connections and self-care are particularly important for people healing from the traumatic experience of foster care and the events in their life that led to it. McMahon asked the youth if they’d like to form a support group with help from therapists. “And they thought it would be a great opportunity for connection,” she says.
So, McMahon contacted Laura Orgel, the local clinical director for A Home Within (AHW), a national organization providing free one-to-one therapy to current and former foster youth. Each AHW therapist commits to providing therapy at no cost—and for as long as it takes— to a young person who has experienced foster care. A Home Within has been providing therapy to OFYC members for years.
“Often young people who have experienced foster care have a negative impression of therapy because they were required to see a therapist when they were younger and did not have a positive experience,” says McMahon. “A support group, as opposed to ‘group therapy,’ seemed like the perfect opportunity for the OFYC youth to experience a positive interaction with a therapist. It normalizes it.”
Orgel was delighted to facilitate the group in partnership with McMahon and OFYC and contacted Judy Herzberg, a member of the local AHW team, who agreed to co-lead it.
Starting in early April, the group began meeting by video conference every Monday evening. Six young people showed up for the first session. In keeping with OFYC’s model of youth leadership, the young people decided how the group would run and what the group agreements would be.
For instance, the youth decided the group would be open—meaning participants could come and go as they liked, showing up one week and missing the next. It would be open not only to OFYC members but also to any former foster youth who expressed interest in joining.
Perhaps most importantly for the group, they could participate however they were comfortable: visible on the video or not; speaking directly to the group or through a private chat with McMahon; taking a break, doodling, and fidgeting as needed. The youth also wanted a place to share their creative work and other things important to them. They agreed to reserve time each week for a showcase. Youth have shared poetry, drawing, songs, paintings, constructions, and even a kitten!
“As the early weeks went along,” says Orgel, “the participants saw that they had the power to create the kind of group they could really benefit from. For young people who have not always had control over their environments, this has been a powerful experience.”
The youth let their peers know what kind of support they’d like to receive from those on the call, and their peers respond in kind, offering emotional and/or practical support, or whatever type of support each youth is looking for.
“It’s a place where I can go and speak about what is happening in my life and also hear others’ stories,” said one young participant. “Hearing others helps remind me that I’m not alone through all of this and there are others also struggling. It also shows me that there is hope on the other side when positive events get brought up.”
When a young person shares their struggles such as rent coming due while they’re not working, the other youth show empathy and understanding, echoing their experience and expressing appreciation to them for sharing. Sometimes, practical support is needed, as when one young woman shared that she was running out of diapers for her baby. She was connected to a source for free diapers via a link added to the chatbox on the video call.
When feelings of loss or even despair have surfaced, participants have offered words and gestures of understanding and caring. They’ve shared strategies for staying safe, taking care of themselves, and maintaining their connections.
“The group means a lot,” said one participant, “because I don’t have much access to counseling and support groups that are related to having experienced childhood in care. I was in foster care for 11 years and there’s not a lot of mental health professionals that have experience working with people like me. I definitely like that our input is valued because I feel like I can say when I am uncomfortable in session.”
One thing these young people can count on during this unsettling time is that every Monday evening, they can click a link to be virtually transported to a roomful of peers and supportive adults— a place where they can share their feelings and concerns, and openly discuss whatever is on their mind without fear of judgment.
As the pandemic continues, so does the group, evolving to meet the shifting challenges, and providing, in the midst of much struggle, a creative, collaborative, and supportive haven.
Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the support group participants.