‘Let the Youth Lead’
In 2005, Napa County officials came to On The Move, a local nonprofit, desperate to move the needle on positive outcomes for foster and homeless youth.
“Back then, foster youth were hitting the streets at age 18 with a garbage bag filled with all of their possessions, and too many of them ended up homeless,” says Amber Twitchell, the current Director at VOICES Youth Programs. On The Move firmly believes that to really make a difference, current and former foster youth need the opportunity to use their own voice, and a chance to develop and lead their own programs. “Let the youth lead,” they told them. Napa leaders agreed, and VOICES was born.
Since that time, VOICES has stayed true to its commitment to authentic youth leadership and believes the ultimate goal is to support youth to believe that they are capable, lovable and worthy of great things.
Twitchell gives much of the credit of VOICES’ success to participating youth, who not only provided the blueprint for their own services, but joined the organization as staff members, channeling their deep knowledge of the issues and empathy for their peers into a scrappy but effective nonprofit. Almost all staff are formerly foster and/or homeless youth, running everything from coordinating psychiatric services, managing cases, and functioning as front-line responders.
Since its start in the oughts, VOICES Napa has been replicated in Sonoma County and Solano County, and VOICES programs have taken root in Santa Clara and Monterey counties as well. In recognition of this work, in 2016 Twitchell received the Nonprofit Leadership Award from the North Bay Business Journal.
Thirteen years ago, Odelia Bueno was on track to become a statistic. The youngest of 11 kids in a family roiled by violence, she entered foster care at 15. Seeing her leadership potential, VOICES hired her, and she has since worked her way up to become VOICES Napa’s Independent Living Program Case Manager.
Part of what she does is logistical, and usually urgent. “I help youth figure out immediate goals like housing and food,” Bueno says. “What do they do if they will be homeless in two weeks? Sometimes I drive a youth in my car to find housing. Sometimes I get them gift cards for food.”
The other part is helping them believe that things can improve. She is living proof. “When I visit youth in juvenile probation, I tell them that I have been through similar experiences. I have six brothers who have been in and out of prison. I open up to them, and they are like, ‘Wow. You came from a family like this, and you made it through!’”
Now a mother of a two-year-old daughter, Bueno has even more motivation to help others, and keep herself on track, listening to her own voice as well as those of her mentors and peers.
“Growing up with VOICES has given me so much, and the only thing I want to do now is give back. As I tell the youth I work with, every day is still a struggle, but I know I can make it through the day,” Bueno says.
Director of VOICES: Amber Twitchell
VOICES recognizes that youth are not only recipients of social services, they are also active leaders in supporting their peers, guiding the evolving vision of program delivery at each site, conducting capacity building to enable growing numbers of social service agencies to become “youth-friendly,” and advocating to the community at large to listen and respond to youth voice. VOICES’ one-of-a-kind Youth-Engagement Model provides evidence of past experience and expertise related to developing program activities and goals. The Model focuses on empowering each youth, integrating resources and services, and working with the entire community to address the barriers that youth face as they leave systems of care.
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When I was 16, I was placed in foster care in a group home in Stockton, where I knew no one and was all alone. After months of despair, I got a call from VOICES, which supported me in my return to Napa, helped me register for classes, and provided me with guidance and support at a time I had none. Their support helped me graduate from UC Berkeley with a degree in social welfare. I have supported the work of VOICES whenever I can, including becoming a board member for VOICES’ parent organization, On The Move.
The Comforts of Home
VOICES can help support our community’s emerging leaders, among whom are current and former homeless and foster youth, in ways large and small:
• Conversation and mentorship: When responsible adults take time to offer our youth the benefits of their insights and experiences, new worlds open for them. Learning how the business world works, or how to repair a toilet, or even how to cook are valuable gifts to youth who may not have access to these kinds of skills and experiences.
• The comforts of home: Many of our youth, because they move around constantly or live in group homes, don’t have basic furniture or dishes or books. If you are moving, or downsizing your home, VOICES might have a need for many of the items that might not otherwise seem valuable.
• A home in their own community: Systemic change is necessary to help all of our youth find safe and affordable places to live. VOICES is looking for transformational gifts to create a local center for living and services so current and emancipated foster youth can live in safety in their home communities.
Walter S. Johnson Foundation
May & Stanley Smith Charitable Fund
Meyer Family Fund
Graham & Marilyn Alcott
Mike and Gail Forte
North Napa Rotary
Junior League of Napa-Sonoma
Napa Valley Community Foundation
Community Foundation Sonoma County
Solano County Community Foundation
In-N-Out Burger Foundation
Mary’s Pizza Shack