Listening to what young people need

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“Nothing about us, without us”. This is a motto that is familiar among the group of foster and adoptive youth in the state of Iowa. This motto is a lifeline for youth. This motto is a demand of inclusion in the decision-making process for foster and adoptive youth.

Achieving Maximum Potential (AMP) is a youth-driven statewide network of councils made up of youth aged 13-21 who support and advocate for themselves and other youth who have ever been in an out-of-home placement (foster, kinship, adoptive, shelter, residential, detention). AMP meetings are a time for youth to gain valuable life skills for healthy transitions into adulthood, learn about local resources, and socialize while in a supportive environment of youth with similar experiences.

During AMP meetings we also have a time to enjoy a meal together. The Cedar Rapids AMP council has a truly blessed relationship with Junior League of Cedar Rapids. This group of women has graciously provided a home cooked family style meal at our AMP meetings for a couple of years now. This is something that youth look forward to at every meeting.

Junior League of Cedar Rapids has also focused on foster youth for a couple of years with their “Apartment in a Suitcase” program. This program has provided youth with a suitcase filled with all of the things that youth need to establish themselves into their own apartment for the first time. Things like bedding, dishes, laundry detergent, and toilet paper! This is a gift that the youth who have aged out of the foster care system look forward to and has been an unbelievable blessing to them.

The three core principals that AMP focuses on are mentor, educate, and advocate. AMP youth not only are mentored by the facilitators and volunteers that work with AMP but the youth also have an opportunity to mentor other youth that are new to AMP in a peer-to-peer relationship. The education involved in AMP is twofold. First, AMP youth have the right to education. So often foster youth are moving from placement to placement and it is hard for them to make sure their credits transfer with them. AMP youth also have the opportunity to educate foster parents, social workers and legislators about the needs and concerns that AMP youth have regarding the system. Some of that education also becomes apart of the advocating piece as well. AMP youth learn to advocate for themselves when it comes to their time in care. Advocacy is very important to youth in the foster care system because it gives them the opportunity to stand up for themselves and for other youth in the system when things are not being handled correctly.

Every year AMP youth have the opportunity to develop a legislative agenda. Youth from each of the 15 councils offer up suggestions of things that they would like to see changed in the system that would directly affect youth in care. The list is long, as you might imagine. After the list gets narrowed and approved by the Iowa Department of Human Services the youth are presented with the official legislative agenda for the year. This agenda is something that they study to familiarize themselves with. The agenda gets spread to foster parents, and workers, and community partners and most importantly, legislators.

Youth fight and lobby for the support from their local State Representatives and Senators. Every year the youth are invited to the State Capitol to lobby for the new laws they would like to take place. Youth in AMP get to advocate for themselves and other youth in the system to help make it better for foster and adoptive youth. This year one of the youths from Cedar Rapids was asked to be a part of the news conference to kick off the day at the State Capitol. Corey Anderson spoke passionately about his time in a youth shelter and talked about how AMP youth request additional housing options for youth in shelters that would benefit from a housing location that focused on behavioral or mental health. A lot of times shelters are used as a transition from one placement to the next for foster youth. However some youth that are put in shelters require a lot more care and attention than shelter staff can provide which makes for troubling times at shelter for other youth. After the news conference AMP youth from all of the AMP councils had the opportunity to talk to their local senators and representatives about the agenda for the year. The youth from the Cedar Rapids council spent a lot of time with State Rep. Art Staed (D-Cedar Rapids). The youth from Cedar Rapids always look forward to talking to Rep. Staed because he always takes time to talk with them and listen intently to their concerns.

This year AMP’s number one agenda item is Subsidized Guardianship. Subsidized Guardianship has been passed in 32 other states. AMP youth would like Subsidized Guardianship to be passed in Iowa because it would allow a relative or a person with family-like ties to assume permanent legal responsibility of the youth without requiring parental rights to be terminated. Subsidized Guardianship allows the state of Iowa to access federal funding in order to offset the costs of having a relative or a person with family-like ties taking care of a youth.

AMP, to many of the youth involved, means a forever family. It is a group of youth who have bonded over similar experiences and has even given some youth a purpose and a meaning in their lives. AMP is actively making a change in Iowa. Watching foster and adoptive youth learn to use their story and their voice to make change happen is truly thrilling to me. Although AMP is only a portion of my job, it is a passion of mine to work with these youth and I feel blessed everyday I work with them.

• Shelby Holsapple has worked for Foundation 2 Inc. for the past three years and has spent a majority of that time advocating for and working with youth in the foster care system.

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