Empowering Foster Youth to Be Change Agents
Janay Eustace found herself in the foster care system as a new high school freshman, juggling her duties as class president and rally commissioner – all on her birthday week in 1999.
As her mother battled addiction, Eustace was first sent to an intimidating children’s receiving home in Sacramento, and after a few weeks, was placed with her grandmother on the other side of town.
After hearing other foster youth talk about having gone to a concert of R&B singer Usher through the California Youth Connection (CYC), she joined the nonprofit as a youth member at the age of 14.
“I wasn’t thinking about advocacy. I wasn’t thinking about leadership development. I was thinking about Usher,” Eustace, today the executive director of the California Youth Connection, admits with a laugh. But the nonprofit helped her find support, community, and empowerment during a traumatic time in her life. “Without CYC, I would have been really isolated and confused.”
The statewide California Youth Connection is a current and former foster youth-led organization that focuses on transforming the child welfare system through policy, practice, and legislative change. That Eustace, who experienced the system itself, now leads the organization is a testament to just how much youth leadership is programmed into CYC’s DNA.
“Our vision is that every young person [in the system] be a part of all decisions made in their life so that they can grow up into thriving adults,” Eustace says.
CYC, which has some 33 chapters throughout the state including in Los Angeles, works to change local, statewide level, and even federal policy. As a high school student some 20 years ago, Eustace visited Congress members and advocated for extending the foster care program and benefits to youth until age 21. In 2008, Congress did just that and two years later the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 12, which now offers thousands of California foster youth benefits past the age of 18.
Many organizations center youth voices and partner with young people experiencing the foster care system, Eustace says. But CYC is “completely unique in the way our members decide and develop and bring to life organically the issues that are facing system-involved youth who are experiencing foster care.”
Ricardo Ortega joined CYC several years ago as a foster youth and high school junior. That allowed him to travel outside his community for the first time, connect and network with statewide policy makers, and get valuable advocacy and legislative experience.
Today, the Cal State Dominguez Hills political science student is active on CYC’s Member Executive Commission, which helps the nonprofit’s administrative staff make decisions about its operations. He works for another nonprofit supporting mental health clients in Los Angeles County, serves on the L.A. County Youth Commission and is an immigration commissioner for Assemblyman Mike Gipson.
“CYC encouraged me to go outside of my comfort zone,” Ortega says. “It allowed me to feel empowered, and even though I was young, to create impact for foster youth across the state.”
Executive Director: Janay Eustace
The mission of California Youth Connection (CYC), a youth-led organization, is to develop leaders who empower each other and their communities to transform the foster care system through legislative, policy, and practice change.
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Among the organizations doing great work supporting foster youth, CYC uniquely stands out because the advocacy comes from the youth themselves – in their own voices, by choosing their own initiatives, and through their direct leadership. I am so proud to be in a community with these outstanding young people because they are shaping the future of the foster system, informed by their own personal experiences, and doing so to improve how their future brothers and sisters experience foster care. I find this passion and commitment to be incredibly selfless, and an integral and important perspective for transforming foster systems in California, across the country, and worldwide.
Help CYC Meet Its $150,000 Fundraising Goal
The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted CYC members (current and former foster youth ages 14-24) – creating feelings of social isolation, cutting off lifelines of support and making it incredibly difficult to build community during a time when it was needed more than ever. So as CYC thinks about a return to in-person community building for its young people, it is planning to make its two in-person conferences (Day at the Capitol and Summer Leadership & Policy Conference) more effective than ever.
As a youth-led organization with over half of its staff having experienced foster care, CYC members are leading the way through their own empowerment and advocacy. One of CYC’s core programming pillars is its conferences where the organization brings young people together at universities throughout California (Summer Leadership & Policy) and at the state capitol (Day at the Capitol) for three days of skills-building workshops, meetings, and community bonding. These conferences are springboards for youth development and empowerment.
But the lights have been turned off on these life-changing experiences for nearly two years. In 2022 and beyond, CYC hopes to bring these young advocates together again, providing them with the sense of community that they have missed for so long.
$150,000 in charitable gifts will allow CYC to bring all its members to these seminal events, and also support its youth-driven policy change agenda.
Be a part of empowering California’s foster youth.
The Zellerbach Foundation
California Wellness Foundation
California Community Foundation
The Stuart Foundation
The Center at Sierra Health Foundation
Orange County Bar Charitable Foundation
May & Stanley Smith Charitable Trust
Tipping Point Community
Walter S. Johnson Foundation
Edward W. Hazen Foundation
W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation