Former foster youth helps others
Local student works to better the foster-care system
Feven Seyoum still remembers a time as a child when her father beat her for receiving a B on a test, rather than an A. She also remembers despising being moved to foster care, and then becoming thankful for everything it has provided for her.
Her story, along with many others from people who grew up in foster care, has for the most part remained unheard by the community. But the 23-year-old Seyoum is one of the voices working diligently to change that and the misconceptions often associated with the system.
“At first I hated everything about foster care. I didn’t like the shame and stigma that can come with being a foster youth,” Seyoum said. “There were times where I thought about running away, but I didn’t, and now I can say that it saved my life.”
Seyoum is the president of Butte County’s chapter of the California Youth Connection. The CYC is a nonprofit organization led mostly by current and former foster youth focusing on bettering the lives of their foster peers. The chapter is presenting “A Night of Digital Storytelling” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 29, at Beatnik’s Coffeehouse in Chico (admission is $8).
This event will feature short films written by foster kids about how they overcame obstacles. Proceeds from the event will help send local youth to CYC’s annual summer camp, a conference for the young people to share their stories and strategize new legislative bills to improve the foster-care system.
One of their chief concerns is for young adults who are left hanging when they leave the system. According to the CYC, California is home to an estimated 100,000 foster children. An estimated 65 percent turn 18 and leave the system without a place to live.
“Statistics can make some impact, but if people could hear someone’s experiences, it is much more powerful,” said Seyoum, whose short film will be one of a few featured during the presentation.
Seyoum admits putting her story into a short film was difficult. At the same time it was beneficial to the soul.
“When I was putting the film together, I spent most of the weekend rotating tissues and crying,” she said. “But in the end it’s very therapeutic. You cry, but you also feel a heavy bag lifted off your shoulders.”
Seyoum is originally from Eritrea, a small African nation north of Ethiopia bordering the Red Sea. She lived there until the age of 15 with her mother and two brothers and then moved to the United States so the family could reunite with her father in Oakland. Within a few days of moving to the States her father began abusing her.
“It was common in Africa for parents to hit their children. My mother would rough us up sometimes if we were out of line,” said Seyoum. “But my father would lose control, and it would take hours for him to come back down to reality.”
Eventually Seyoum told an after-school teacher about the abuse, and was placed in foster care for the next four years.
At the age of 19, she moved into a transitional housing unit for a few months to help her become independent. In 2006, she moved to Chico to enroll at Chico State to pursue a career as a social worker. Soon she would become a driving force in the local CYC chapter.
“I joined the CYC because I wanted to use my experience to help others and help these kids, kids like me, [who] are not just another case file,” Seyoum said. “It’s like being part of a family that can understand everything you’ve been through.” As president of the Butte County chapter, Seyoum helps kids identify ways to improve the foster-care system and to prepare for the conference, which is where all the California chapters forge their ideas to propose a legislative bill.
The CYC then organizes its annual “Day at the Capitol,” usually at the end of January. During the event, the kids flood the Capitol building in Sacramento to present the bill and share their stories with legislators.
“For kids who never get the chance to feel important, that day is definitely a high point in their life,” Seyoum said. “Their legislators don’t see you as just another kid, but someone who has been through a lot.”
The CYC’s efforts have led to the successful passage of at least 17 bills by the California Legislature. Despite the success the CYC has seen in recent years, Seyoum still thinks more can be done to make sure these young people are not left by the wayside.
“The community can learn more about foster care and see beyond the stereotypes,” Seyoum said. “There are many who assume we are just trash that the state has to pick up, but if you get to know us, we are just humans who were dealt a bad card with our families.”