We all live our lives inside of a grand “life story.” Within this overarching story we have many stories that make up the days of our lives. Stories from the past and present and future stories unlived and unwritten. Many of the kids in foster care are living within the shadows of tragic past stories, stories significantly shaped by difficult days and traumatic experiences leading up to their journey into foster care.
Their present stories are ones often filled with great complexity and difficulty, as they navigate the challenges of being in foster care and in many cases awaiting uncertain outcomes about their future:
“Will I go home to be with my biological family?”
“Since mom and dad gave up their parental rights, will I be adopted?”
“How do I grieve what I haven’t fully lost yet?”
“How do I move forward and dream and set goals with so much uncertainty about where I’ll even be living?”
These are awfully tough questions swirling inside their lives and yield so many emotions trying to process all of this. As a result of trying to cope, it’s very common to see kids in foster care exhibiting negative acting out behaviors. Who can blame them? Dealing with so much uncertainty, frequently moving to new foster homes, and losing more familiarity makes foster care a difficult place to find one’s footing and one’s hope.
In the midst of all this fear, anxiety, and uncertainty lies the significant impacts of trauma. Trauma creates sometimes erratic and destructive behaviors. Behaviors resulting from the wounds of abuse and neglect and the anger and pain created as a result.
This all leads to narratives being formed by others about the kids in foster care. We create narratives to try to make sense of and connect details and events within peoples’ lives. We make significant meaning from our narratives. Fair or not, the narratives themselves often become the story about us or the way others know and relate to us.
For kids in foster care, the narrative being told about them, representing them, can come from well-intentioned foster parents and many of the professionals in their lives. In many cases, the narrative being told is more based on how the kids are coping and behaving with these tough challenges instead of on their unique gifts and qualities (the things that make them who they really are). Too often, this false narrative of “who they are” becomes written in case worker’s charts, rehearsed, and repeated in meetings by the various professionals in their lives, and sadly, often believed by the kids themselves about who they really are.
The power of taking the narrative back.
Mark Burke, a youth advocate with The Matthews House in Colorado, knows first-hand the power of giving kids back control of their narratives. It’s something he does as he mentors youth in foster care, and it’s a gift he’s seen when those kids take part in the I Belong Project’s video storytelling initiative.
In an experience all too common for youth in foster care, Mark describes how he watched one of the teens he mentored build a rap sheet of negative behaviors and expectations as he struggled to adjust to life in a foster care group home. What was happening in his life in the face of traumatic circumstances didn’t represent who he really was. That rap sheet, in many ways, became his story, according to Mark.
Kids like this young man enter the foster care system through no fault of their own, as a result of abuse, abandonment and neglect. That trauma and separation is followed by more trauma as kids also face the loss of familiarity, friends, school and stability. Many times, they are shuffled to successive foster placements.
Their “rap sheets” often are simply a series of traumatic responses to highly traumatic circumstances. But as they are chronicled in case workers’ charts and repeated by educators, staff and other professionals, the kids themselves slowly start to believe their rap sheets tell the story of who they really are.
“I’m someone who cusses out adults.”
I’m someone who hurts others and myself.”
“I’m someone nobody one loves.”
“I’m someone who doesn’t belong.”
But is it really the accurate story and the true picture of who they are? No. It’s not who they are. It’s what they’ve done to cope through unimaginable pain, sadness, anger and loss. It’s what any of us might do faced with a similar set of circumstances.
The I Belong Project Is a Connector, a Platform, and a Place to Dream
America’s Kids Belong’s innovative I Belong Project™ is a one-of-a-kind video storytelling initiative that amplifies the faces and voices of kids in foster care, who are eligible for adoption, in order to connect them with forever families.
The camera and lights give kids the permission and the courage to look at themselves with new clarity and hope. To remind themselves and the world that they are basketball players, artists, ballet dancers, rock collectors, animal lovers, dreamers, and lovers who want to love a family and be loved for who they are.
The I Belong Project doesn’t just help kids find permanent homes. It helps them find themselves again.
The I Belong Project does more than give adoption eligible kids in foster care a platform, it invites them to own the narrative of their lives and paint an imagined and hoped for future. One that might have gotten lost in the fog of being in foster care.
They get to be narrators of their now’s, and show who they really are, instead of just being recipients of someone else’s pre-existing and often inaccurate narrative. At these I Belong Project video shoots, they can share their true, authentic selves in a safe and accepting environment. It is freedom. It is power. It is healing.
“Through the I Belong Project I saw the young man I mentored really represent himself in a good way. And it instantly injected hope back into his life. It gave him a path forward to find a family.Mark Burke, Matthews House
The injection of hope into a precious and courageous life is a beautiful thing. It’s also a new path forward into an unwritten story and a fresh narrative.
I Belong Project is a trademark of America’s Kids Belong.