WASHINGTON D.C. – Kaylia Ervin is learning and aiming to make a difference in the lives of foster youth during her summer internship on Capitol Hill.
Ervin, a Ferris State University junior from Muskegon, is interning in the office of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). She is one of 12 current and former foster youth from across the country who are spending a portion of their summer in Washington D.C. as part of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship program. The summer-long assignment offers young people who have spent time in the U.S. foster care system opportunities to intern in congressional offices and to share their experiences, opinions and unique perspectives with policymakers.
The experience has been an eye opener from the beginning.
“Interning in Washington D.C., at my senator’s office, is like having backstage passes to how the government operates,” said Ervin, a Criminal Justice major and Psychology minor who plans to graduate in May 2015. “You’re issued a Senate badge that allows you to walk freely through the House and Senate. Bumping into senators, sometimes literally in such a busy environment, is more common than I expected.”
CCAI interns conduct research of issues that impact children in foster care. Their findings and recommendations are compiled into a policy report that is presented at a congressional briefing and shared with national child welfare advocates. In past years, the reports have generated local and national attention for issues that are faced by more than 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system.
“Foster care alumni are the true experts on foster care, and so CCAI attempts to listen to them as much as possible in the midst of discussions about child welfare law and policy reform here in Washington,” said Becky Weichhand, CCAI’s interim executive director. “Their voices are powerful and their stories compelling. The Foster Youth Interns bring their creativity and passion to make a difference in the lives of other foster children to their work each summer, and as a result, federal policymakers are inspired to make the changes necessary to improve the system so that future children will be spared the difficulties these alumni have struggled to overcome.”
In her entrance essay, Ervin wrote: “I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and though not an ideal way to grow up, the foster care system has made me who I am today. I am a stronger, more responsible and a more aware individual because of it. I took every disadvantage and turned it into an opportunity. The best thing I have taken from this experience is being able to invest in myself, for foster care has given me a way to pay for college. I had the privilege of learning early on that it is not the hand you were dealt or the strategic way you plan to play the game. It’s all about your game face. It’s looking complication, struggle and defeat in the eye and saying you’re not better than me or the end of me.”
She has soaked up every bit of her experience in Washington D.C. as the assignment comes to an end this month.
“I have the freedom to attend hearings and the privilege to speak at briefings that concern current issues,” Ervin said. “One thing I look forward to each week is speaking with constituents back in my home state. I feel as though, sometimes, I am the one connection between our senator and that individual.”
As she nears the end of this journey, Ervin said her work is coming together nicely.
“I am working on a policy report concerning identity theft among foster youth, which I will personally have a chance to brief to Congress,” Ervin said. “Although I am nervous and excited at the same time, I know that I will do well.”
More than 230,000 youth have transitioned from foster care without permanent family connections, since 1999. Only 58 percent of the youth will graduate from high school by age 19 – compared to 87 percent of all 19 year olds.
Ervin is hopeful that her work will make a difference in the lives of young people who are traveling a path similar.
“The most beneficial resource I will take away from this experience is the professional contacts I have made and new bridges I have built,” she said. “This summer has been life-changing for me as it has helped to lay a solid foundation so that when I am ready to walk in the path of success I will not fall through.”
Said Weichhand, “Kaylia’s arrival in Washington this summer has meaning far beyond her participation in CCAI’s Foster Youth Internship program; she also comes to Capitol Hill as a voice for every child in U.S. foster care.”