June 11, 2024

More Than a Conference: Foster Youth Tap into Internal Power at Blueprint

More Than a Conference: Foster Youth Tap into Internal Power at Blueprint

Cody Van Felden remembers feeling something special in 2019 when she first participated in Blueprint, a semi-annual conference organized by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY). 

Cody was formerly in foster care and had also experienced homelessness. She had attended conferences before, but never one where she felt her participation was truly valued. For Cody, it was the first step in an empowerment journey that has led her to successfully advocate for multiple policy reforms as a JBAY Youth Advocate and JBAY Youth Mentor. 

This genuine empowerment is a central goal of the conference, according to JBAY Director of Education Debbie Raucher. “Students who attend this event routinely share about the enormous impact their participation has had on their lives. It can truly be a turning point that students remember for years to come.”

Debbie and her team have been heading up the semi-annual Blueprint Conference since 2013 and watched it grow from an attendance of 325 to over 700 in 2022. JBAY will host its next Blueprint Conference October 28th and 29th and expects a whopping 900 participants. It is attended by current and former foster youth, campus professionals, K to 12 educators, child welfare social workers, nonprofit representatives and funders. 

According to JBAY Executive Director Amy Lemley, that growth demonstrates an important shift in norms related to post-secondary education, “College and career education are no longer out of reach for foster youth. In California, the reality has changed and for foster youth, it is now a real option.”

JBAY has been at the forefront of state policies that have made this option available to foster youth in California. These include the creation of a statewide network of campus support programs at the campus of every community college, California State University and University of California. These programs provide financial, social and academic support to promote retention and degree completion. 

Cody participated in a campus support program for foster youth at Sacramento State and thinks it made the difference, “The main part of the program is educational support. These programs walk us through the financial aid process and how to pick classes. Without help navigating campus bureaucracy, foster youth would have a hard time. In addition to the educational support, these programs make a campus feel like home. The program is reliable. Having a campus support program makes the difference between a four-year degree and dropping out.”

Another important state policy led by JBAY has been increased access to financial aid. Without the financial or in-kind support often provided by family members, foster youth struggle to stay enrolled. JBAY successfully advocated for an expansion of the Chafee Education and Training Voucher and more recently additional financial support to close the financial aid gap for foster youth. 

Information about these and other policies will be part of the Blueprint Conference, together with workshops about practices to support foster youth in their post-secondary education journey. 

Cody will be attending Blueprint in October, this time as a college graduate and a JBAY staff member. She is excited to meet students and hopes their experience is as positive as the one she first had in 2019. “I want every student who attends Blueprint to feel their internal power, which foster youth are often stripped of because of what we have experienced. The Blueprint Conference allows foster youth to re-discover that internal power” 

Cody continues, “Also, as foster youth, we are also often told that people don’t care about us. Going to the Blueprint Conference and seeing hundreds of people who are working to make college possible for foster youth, is evidence that this is not true. ” 

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