Building Belonging: Digital Communities

For many of us, understanding and relating to the challenges faced by youth in foster care is difficult.  After all, many young people enjoy the love and support of our parents and large networks of family members and friends.

Maybe your mother taught you to ride a bike, and your aunt taught you the family’s chicken soup recipe. Your father’s friend, meanwhile, might have helped you get your first job.

When you turned 19, these support networks didn’t just vanish.

Unfortunately for many of British Columbia’s youth in foster care, there is very little help available to make the transition from adolescence to adult life. Once an 18-year-old in foster care turns 19, many important people in their lives have to begin working with another child.

“If [many of] the main relationships in your life have been paid relationships … the reality that those disappear on your 19th birthday really hits home,” says Mark Gifford, Director of the Fostering Change Program. “It’s like jumping off a diving board rather than a gradual transition.”

Fostering Change is an initiative from the Vancouver Foundation that focuses on making grants to community services working with youth transitioning out of foster care, but it also invests in research and public policy advancement. The overarching goal is to help affect real change at a provincial policy level.

The best way to reach young people who want to show their support for a cause? Go digital.

The organization created an online petition, and used Twitter and Facebook to begin generating traffic and support. Then, volunteers armed with iPads ventured out into the streets of Vancouver and asked the public to add their digital signatures.

Once enough people signed the petition using their social media profiles, data was gathered to see who signed up and who they were connected to. This helped the organization direct their campaigns.

“As we’ve raised the public profile of these issues … more people have become activated. It took us seven weeks to sign up 17,000 people to the petition.”

Most importantly, their voices are being heard.

“One place we’ve seen measurable change is a rise in the level of awareness of the issues facing young people aging out of care. … Along with that, we’ve seen a marked increase in the public support for investing in a package for people coming out of care to the age of 25.”

Three years ago, “about 66% of the BC public was in favour of extending support to the age of 21. This year, 71% are in favour of finding financial support for things like housing, education, and food, until the age of 25”, says Gifford. “So the public understanding and public will for legislative change has increased substantially.”

As momentum builds for Fostering Change, there have been a number of high-profile organizations and community leaders who have lent their support to the movement.

In June of this year, Vancouver City Council unanimously endorsed the petition, and promised to bring it forward to the Union of BC Municipalities. Trevor Linden, the former NHL star and now President of Hockey Operations for the Vancouver Canucks, even appeared in a YouTube video in support of Fostering Change.

“We need to help these young people and give them the support they need to find their way, and I don’t think at 19 or 18 you have the ability to do that. I can’t imagine me, you know, 25 years ago, no having that,” says Linden.

Hopefully, we can all find a way to relate.

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