childrens-week_web.jpgA platform about homelessness was delivered by 26 members of The Children’s Trust’s Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) on the steps of the Old Capitol in Tallahassee.

“Too many of us think we know who the homeless are, but if you visit a homeless shelter and meet the people, you’d be surprised to see what the true ‘face’ of homelessness looks like,” Emily Paul told listeners who gathered on the Capitol Plaza for Children’s Week activities in early April.

Flanked by the full YAC team, Emily, a junior at Miami McArthur High, and two other members shared the podium in their presentation “Give Us Shelter: Homeless Youth at Risk.”

The YAC or the “youth voice” of The Children’s Trust, comprised of high-school students from around the county, meets regularly during the school year to explore leadership and advocacy through workshops and trainings. Each year, the group chooses a theme – homelessness this year – and develops a service project. Then they take a bus trip to Tallahassee during Children’s Week and spend three days meeting state legislators and observing the legislative process first-hand.

For her segment of the presentation, Kim Foreiter, a junior at Dr. Michael Krop High School and co-vice president of the YAC, talked about her family’s spiral into homelessness when a fire destroyed their home.

“Even with the support of many, I still felt vulnerable, embarrassed and out of touch with myself. The majority of the homeless population who don’t have the support and blessing my family did feels alone and isolated,” said Kim, one of several YAC candidates nominated for a PeaceFirst Prize based on their advocacy service work and initiative. 

As part of its visit to Tallahassee, the YAC met with five legislators and a handful of lobbyists, toured the Old Capitol, waged a mock debate in the Senate chamber and attended the 2014 Children’s Week Advocacy Awards Ceremony. 

At the ceremony, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente delivered the keynote address, insisting that there were no simple answers to shore up gaps in the child welfare system. Pariente said she was

surprised that it’s taken society so long to understand what child advocates have been urging for more than a decade. 

“Children don’t choose to be born into poor families,” Pariente said, adding “so what’s needed is a continuum of comprehensive care so these children can grow up to be contributing members of society.”

During a whirlwind day on April 8, the YAC met with Sens. Dwight Bullard, Oscar Braynon III, Anitere Flores; Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez; and David Winialski, an assistant to Rep. Erik Fresen. 

In the meetings, the youth urged the legislators to support bills such as SB 260 that would allow unaccompanied youth – homeless youth whose parents are missing or unavailable – to qualify for access to medical, dental and mental health treatments. YAC members exchanged views with the legislators on other issues such as early childhood education, health care and child welfare.

“Coming here as a group I’ve seen that senators and representatives actually want to hear the opinion of youths,” said Paige McGhee, a senior at New World School of the Arts. “Children are so important and they should be one of the main issues that legislators focus on.”

“I came to Tallahassee because I have a passion for the judicial system and wanted to learn about advocacy and promoting what I believe is correct,” said Kiara Lavin, a sophomore at Law Enforcement Memorial. “I came here to meet legislators and to see how the process works, how people go about promoting themselves and how to speak on issues selflessly.”

Bullard offered a valuable lesson on the leadership theme.  “As a legislator with the minority party for the past several years, it’s been very difficult to get my legislative ideas passed, ideas that I think are very worthwhile and important. Then it seems that the same legislation – with a sponsor from the other side of the aisle – advances. People get too possessive, if legislation is good for everybody then let it be good for everybody, release it and let positive things happen,” said Bullard.

For its presentation at the Capitol, the YAC drew on its service learning project with homeless teens at the Chapman Center for the Homeless in Miami. Over a period of weeks, the YAC facilitated several interactions to better understand the challenges faced by their same-age peers – some of the 7,000 homeless youth in Miami-Dade County schools on any given day. 

“The fact is that you never know when it’s going to be you that’s homeless,”

co-president Kim said in her presentation remarks. “It’s important that we treat others as we would like to be treated and that as a community we show our homeless brothers and sisters that they are not alone – and that we care.”