Fostering change

Youth organization celebrates 25 years of improving foster care

Former foster youths William Dickison and Shannon Brown work with California Youth Connection to enact change in the foster-care system.

Former foster youths William Dickison and Shannon Brown work with California Youth Connection to enact change in the foster-care system.

photo by ken smith

Join the celebration:
The Butte County chapter of California Youth Connection is celebrating the organization’s 25-year anniversary this Sunday, May 12, at the Arc Pavilion, 2040 Park Ave., from 6 to 9 p.m. $25 entry includes buffet dinner, entertainment and an awards presentation. To attend, call or text 968-8425.

“I was born into the foster-care system,” said William Dickison, 20, of his formative years. “I grew up in and out of homes since I was 6 weeks old, and I lived in 19 different homes in 17 and a half years.

“You hear about a lot of foster kids going into the system because they’ve been abused at their real homes, because they get beat up and sexually assaulted,” the young man continued, “but I grew up in the system with all of those things happening to me.”

Shannon Brown, another 20-year-old former local foster child, has similar stories to share. Separated from her family at age 3, Brown had lived in 65 foster situations—mostly group homes rather than private residences—by the age of 15, when she ran away to live with a boyfriend. Within months she found herself pregnant and living on the streets, in juvenile hall, and eventually back in foster care.

Dickison also felt compelled to run and, at the age of 15, spent several months couch-surfing with friends when possible and sleeping on the streets when necessary.

The duo’s stories of hardships continued. Both claim to have been victims of bullying, harassment and abuse at the hands of fellow foster children and group-home staff. Brown related bizarre tales of being forced to jog in place for hours by strict religious foster parents because of her inability to sit still in church. She has ADHD, she said.

She also alleged sexual abuse at the age of 12 that forced her to run away for the first time. And during his stint on the streets, Dickison said he used hard drugs regularly and hated the person he was becoming as he “slipped further down the wrong path.”

Both also spoke of a few good foster experiences: Dickison with a woman he lived with for six years, Brown in a home with 12 other foster children where she had her own horse, but battled for attention. These situations inevitably ended.

“You’re in a home, and you’re supposed to feel comfortable, but I was never comfortable,” Brown said. “I could never sleep in a bed and know how long it was going to last. So I never slept comfortably, and I never woke up feeling happy, and I never had anything to look forward to.”

Dickison said his life began to turn around shortly after his time on the streets. Due to his running away and other behavioral problems, he was compelled to take group counseling. Through this, he said, he was introduced to the local chapter of the California Youth Connection (CYC), a nonprofit organization led mostly by current and former foster youth whose mission is to improve the lives of other youths and the entire foster-care system.

CYC trains young people in leadership and advocacy strategies, helps develop personal and professional skills, and helps foster youth gain access to available services.

The organization also participates in direct action to affect policy change on the state legislative level. Every year, members of CYC’s legislative committee—made up of members from 32 regional chapters—meet to decide what changes need to be made based on their real experiences, and then draft a bill. Every January, CYC holds a “Day at the Capitol,” in which the youths speak directly to legislators and try to find backers for their bill. They have an amazing success rate over the past 25 years, having a hand in the passage of at least 17 laws to help foster children attain services ranging from transitional housing to college tuition.

The local CYC chapter is also pushing at the local level. Last month, CYC members made a presentation to the Butte County Board of Supervisors, which issued a proclamation declaring May 2013 as Foster Care Month. The Chico City Council plans to do the same at its May 21 meeting.

Brown discovered CYC just a few months ago, and said it has already helped her immensely. It has also fired her up to advocate for foster youths.

“I like teaching them that it’s important to speak up, to use your mouth and your mind,” she said. “Call for help when you need it. When it’s a good situation, let it be known. When it’s not, then let that be known also.”

Brown works as a cook at the 6th Street Youth Drop-In Center in downtown Chico and is currently in transitional housing. She attends school through Oroville Adult Education, hopes to get her GED soon and is considering cosmetology school. She is also expecting a baby next month. She said her first child—born when she was 17—was taken away from her at a few days old and placed in foster care.

Dickison has been involved in CYC for four years and has sat on the legislative committee several times. He credits his involvement with the organization for giving him a voice when he felt he had none and with turning his life around.

“I knew right away I’d found people who understand the experiences that I’ve had better than anyone else ever could,” he said.

“I used to hate being a foster kid and thought once I was done I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Now I want to work with them, I want to let them know there are people out there who know they’re struggling and are there to help.”

Today Dickison has a job as a cook at a convalescent hospital and lives independently with roommates. He plans to go to culinary school, is interested in studying social work, and is trying to get a job through the CYC youth-training project, in which foster children train new foster parents.

“I’m not exactly where I want to be,” he said, “but I’m getting there.”