Community Voices: Shari Walker

This month we are featuring a range of voices from our community of outstanding young leaders who have experienced foster care firsthand. Recently, DCFS announced the search for a new director, and our young leaders have offered their thoughts on the qualities and concerns that they hope will factor into the hiring process.

Shari Walker is a journalist, office manager at Fostering Media Connections, member of the Opportunity Youth Collaborative Young Leaders,  and former Human Service Aid at DCFS who grew up in foster care. These are her words:

If I could change one thing, it would be the humanity of the system. I’m hoping the new director will work on paying attention to the well-being of the hearts and minds of the kids. For me being in foster care was very difficult because DCFS works well as a machine but it’s not a parent or a support system in the way that I needed. Machines can work well in terms of function and flow and getting things done. But in the end, I was missing partnership and relationship. I did well in school, so I was seen as a “successful kid” but I felt like nobody checked on my inner being. I had so many people come in and out of my life. I got my bus pass, I went to court every six months, and afterwards, I got in the van to go back to my foster home. It was functional but not personal. The system kept me outwardly safe, but inwardly, I didn’t feel acknowledged.

I hope that the new director of DCFS will keep the Welfare Council alive. The Welfare Council is made up of former foster youth, kinship guardianship parents, foster parents, and people who previously had their kids in the system. We were all clients of DCFS at some point. We met every month, and every two months, the director of DCFS would join us. As part of the Welfare Council, I came up with an idea for a mentorship program so former foster youth who aged out of the system could mentor those who were about to transition out. We did a pilot program and the director loved it. But it hasn’t moved forward since then. I’m hoping the new director can really build that program, with former foster youth really providing that consistent person in the lives of foster youth, someone who can relate and inspire them.

For those kids who are labeled “high risk,” for the kids who run away from home, who don’t have the best attitude, those who kick and scream and don’t follow rules: I want everyone to know there is hope. I did all of those things, sometimes all of them at the same time. I could be a firecracker. Those are survival mechanisms that you use to keep people out. Some people wrote me off because of it. Eventually I learned that I could use that same skill to inspire instead of to harm.  If you can find the beauty in a child and help them appreciate the way they can use those feelings in a healthy, productive way, you can get to the heart of that child, and that’s when great things can happen.

A child can learn to thrive, rather than just survive, but it’s hard and it takes time. Things that are easy and comfortable for most kids can be very uncomfortable for a child who has been in survival mode their entire life. Give them time. Don’t write the kids off. They need you. We need you. I needed you.