Nearly everywhere I go nowadays, I attempt to raise awareness for at-risk kids, especially foster kids who are soon to age out of the system with nowhere to go but the streets. Inevitably, when I tell tenderhearted people about the circumstances of these kids, somebody will say something like, “That’s awful! Somebody needs to do something.”
“That’s right,” I say. “Be somebody.”
The response often comes, “How? What can one person do?”
There are several ways you can help if you want to be somebody in a foster child’s life. Certainly you can begin by becoming aware of the issues involved for these kids. You can become a youth advocate; you can mentor or even adopt a child. You can open your home to a kid. You can donate to an organization that helps children.
One of the most important keys to helping foster kids is to elect public officials who have a heart for children and the courage to take the necessary stands that will truly make a difference, especially for the forgotten foster kids aging out of the system. Certainly, this is true on a national level, but you may not be aware that each state within the U.S. sets its own standards regarding foster care. Presently, a handful of states have raised the age that children transition out of the foster care system to 21. That’s great, but we need every state to do something similar. That can happen if we elect people who genuinely care about foster children.
Almost every day now, I meet someone who understands what it means to be somebody. I met Elizabeth on a plane, during my walk halfway across America to raise awareness for foster kids. I had performed a concert the night before and was on my way back to the Meet Me Halfway walk. I spoke to Elizabeth before the plane taxied down the runway. She seemed reserved and quite skeptical of me, but for some reason, I felt compelled to share with her my mission. In her own words, here is how Elizabeth responded:
As I waited in line to board the plane, I saw him … the man and his guitar were in the boarding group ahead of me, and he was finishing up a conversation with another passenger in the waiting area. As he headed for the plane, I heard him say, “Nice to meet you. I’m Jimmy Wayne.”
I walked onto the plane and quickly scanned the seats, searching for that prized window seat. There he was again, having taken an aisle seat. Without giving his name, my fellow passenger began to tell me about his mission to walk halfway across the United States to raise awareness of foster kids aging out of the system. My skepticism kicked in, and my thought process was something like, Oh, sure, buddy … you’re “walking” across America. That’s why you’re sitting next to me on an airplane!
Over the next hour and a half, he proceeded to tell me about his mission, showed me pictures of people and kids he’d met along the way, and explained that the reason he was on the plane was he played a concert the past weekend and was headed back to pick up his walk where he left off, somewhere near Oklahoma City. As we talked, his passion for his project became evident, and I began to soften a little, although lingering somewhere in the back of my mind was the thought, This can’t be legit. Any minute now this guy is going to ask me for money!
He continued talking, telling stories of foster kids and homeless kids and kids with no adults in their lives to help guide them into their own adulthood. I was struck by his intensity and his passion and his obvious conviction to this cause. Somewhere in the conversation, we finally introduced ourselves, and he handed me his card:
Meet Me Halfway. Follow Jimmy Wayne on Twitter.
He never did ask me for money, but he did ask me if I would join him on his walk the following day. Admittedly, being asked to go somewhere with a stranger, especially one with a guitar, long hair, and a knit stocking cap, was something I’m sure my mother warned me not to do, so I politely declined.
I got off the plane, went home to my comfortable house and my three kids, and my two dogs and cat, content in the thought that my mother would have been proud I had the good sense to turn down a stranger’s offer.
But that night I couldn’t sleep. I finally went to the computer and typed in the website listed on the card Jimmy Wayne had given me, and I began to read … and read … and read. Before long, tears were running down my face as I learned more about this man’s mission and the deeply moving story of his own troubled childhood and the young people he was now determined to help. I also learned he was a country music star … who knew?
The next morning I signed up for a Twitter account and tweeted Jimmy that I wanted to walk with him that day. Soon, he sent me directions on where to meet him, and off we went. Six miles and many stories later, I knew the direction of my future volunteer efforts — working with older foster kids. I walked with Jimmy a few more times as he made his way through Oklahoma, each time learning more about the world of foster kids and the system and his own experiences.
Through several twists of fate and shared connections that I can only attribute to divine intervention, I was connected with a local organization whose mission is to serve foster kids in our county and surrounding counties. I signed up to begin the vetting process to become a mentor. After a couple months of background checks and interviews, I was given my match: 13-year-old Keke. Her mother had been in and out of jail for drugs, and from what little she knew of her father, he had been in prison since she was 3. Keke had been in the foster care system since she was 8, taken from her home during a drug raid.
Four homes in 14 months … four new schools … four new families … four new sets of rules … four new sets of foster siblings. I became the one constant in Keke’s life, the one familiar face in those months of turmoil. In each home, when I would connect with Keke’s new foster families, one of the first things they would tell me is that Keke had been asking for me and wanting to know if they would let her continue our relationship.
My first experience as a mentor has been incredible, and I thank God for putting me next to Jimmy Wayne on that plane. Without him, I never would have stepped so far out of my comfort zone or learned to see past the lifelong stereotypes I held about foster kids, to open my eyes to a world I never wanted to acknowledge even existed.
While somewhat anxious about what lies ahead, I know I am not the same person I was.
Elizabeth discovered what it means to be somebody. The fact that you have read this far speaks loudly that you, too, want to be somebody in the life of a child. Maybe you are like me: I want to be the kind of guy who is not afraid to take a stand; I want to be the kind of friend who will be there when needed.
One person really can make a difference.
From the depths of my heart, I hope you will join with me.