‘Ohana is Forever for Foster Youth

Posted on Aug 25, 2017 in Main

By Judith Wilhoite, Family Advocate for It Takes An ‘Ohana and Lynne Kazama, Assistant Program Administrator for Child Welfare Services Branch Program Development Office

The ‘Ohana is Forever Conference (OIF) is an annual event for current and former foster youth, as well as various adult stakeholders in the child welfare services area, to hear about various topics relevant to current and former foster youth and their needs, and best practices for interacting and working with this population.

The 11th annual OIF was held on July 21, 2017 at the beautiful Ko‘olau Ballrooms in Kāne‘ohe.  Over 130 current (primarily 14 to 17 years) and former (18 to 26 years) foster youth and hundreds of adults attended.  Neighbor island youth made up over half of the youth attending.

Photo courtesy of EPIC ‘Ohana

The adults present included various stakeholders within the child welfare services community, including CWS administrators and staff, Family Court judges and staff, Guardian Ad Litems (GALs) / Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), parent attorneys, Deputies Attorney General (DAG), representatives from various community organizations and service providers that service this population, and resource caregivers.

Planning for this event begins with a call to current and former foster youth to submit a theme.  One year over 30 different themes were submitted for consideration.  Youth then determine the final theme through a voting process.  Speakers prepare their presentations with a focus on the theme. This year’s theme was “Hiki Nō,” meaning “can do”.

The voice of the youth was especially strong this year, beginning with the emcees, Wendy and Pashlyn Santos.  Wendy was a foster youth and once she aged out of the system, became the youngest resource caregiver ever in Hawaiʻi so that she could care for her younger siblings.  Wendy and Pash set the tone for a fun filled, meaningful day.

Director Pankaj Bhanot gave welcoming remarks from the Department of Human Services.  He spoke about ‘Ohana Nui, the importance of collaboration and honoring the voices of those we serve.  His messages resonated with the audience, especially with the young people.  The young people appreciated his sharing of his own family story of the importance of his grandmother.  He left them with the powerful message of Hiki Nō/Can Do—they CAN DO with their lives, their futures.

Photo courtesy of EPIC ‘Ohana

The first presentation was a panel of former foster youth, facilitated by EPIC ʻOhana’s Delia Ulima.  Panelists shared barriers they overcame to get to where they are today, the key people in their support network who made a positive difference for them, advice for youth who are navigating the transition from foster care to adulthood and advice for the adults who work with or serve young people in foster care.  It was an enlightening presentation.

Next, youth went to special workshops for them, including “Calming the Storm Within – Practicing Mindfulness to Gain Personal Freedom” and “Can do, Will do, I will.” There they learned how to set intentions and reach goals through mindfulness, visualization, inspiration and action.  The adults heard “LOVE and WIT: The Big Story of Culture, Cohesion, and Community” by David Channer.

In the afternoon, everyone came back together to hear “Right For You: Empowering Young People in Foster Care to Become Advocates and Leaders in Their Own Lives,” presented by HI H.O.P.E.S. Youth Leadership Boards. Youth learned how to be more involved in decisions that impact their lives and adults learned the importance of helping youth develop advocacy, leadership, and decision-making skills.

Next up, we heard “Foster Youth Advocacy (FYA) Talks: Inspirational Stories and Thoughts about Overcoming Barriers, Pursuing Dreams and Making a Difference.” These talks were presented by one current foster youth and four former foster youth.  Each youth’s talk was very powerful and provided insight and inspiration to keep positive as we all move forward together.

We ended the day with a special musical performance by Irie Love, one of Hawai‘i’s own.

Thanks to all who helped make this event possible. Planning committee members include current and former foster youth, Hawai‘i Family Court, Department of Human Services, EPIC ‘Ohana, Inc., Family Programs Hawai‘i, CASA-Hawaiʻi , Hale ‘Ōpio, Hale Kipa, Inc., HI H.O.P.E.S. Youth Leadership Board, Maui Youth and Family Services ILP, Salvation Army, and SAS Services, LLC.  The event is funded by the Hawai‘i Court Improvement Program and the Victoria S. and Bradley L. Geist Foundation.