Employee Spotlight: Dana Castine
As Director of Methodist Foster Care, Dana Castine provides direction and oversight of foster care services for Louisiana United Methodist… Read More
Jarvis Spearman can tell his story because of the impressive work and the positive changes he and others who grew up in the foster care system accomplished. The group, now members of the LEAF State Youth Board, improved the foster care experience for all children in foster care.
Growing up “in the system” since the age of 6, Jarvis stayed with family, then a foster family, then another foster family, then back and forth. Jarvis bounced from one home to another, never feeling the security of solid ground beneath his feet. Some foster families were good, some not. Some days, Jarvis questioned his worth and prayed to be taken away, but a light shined through the darkness…God. “God kept pushing me to be who I was meant to be.”
Jarvis, now 26, is studying for his licensing exam to become a social worker. This is just the latest of a long list of achievements. He helped to raise his younger brother, joined numerous advocacy groups to promote foster youth issues, earned his bachelor’s degree, earned his master’s degree, and worked as a children’s advocate at the State Capitol to change state laws on child well-being.
We were fortunate to sit down with Jarvis and dive into his thoughts about growing up in the Foster Care system. This is Jarvis’ story.
What is the Life Skills Training program for foster children?
“Life Skills classes were never an exciting subject for us growing up. We would hide underneath our grandmother’s house just to avoid them. It is very challenging at a young age to accept this reality of being on one’s own, but grasping the skills offered would lead to prosperity. Life Skills is a journey that we all have to go through; it is about learning the most important values of life. The program taught us how to see value in ourselves and allowed us to work at our own pace. We were taught everything from balancing a checkbook, budgeting our money, paying bills and cooking, to learning how to cope with our emotions to become successful, thriving adults.
Even though we would mess up we were encouraged to learn from those mistakes and get back up. Many kids have bad trust issues, and going through the program we were taught about building relationships. Life Skills taught me to better myself with my strengths and weaknesses, so I could discover who I truly was. Going through this journey with Life Skills, I discovered who I was.”
How did Life Skills affect your life?
“After completing the program, Life Skills helped me find a transitional home in Monroe. Despite that being a great avenue, I eventually chose to stay with my foster parent at the time since I was not wanting to make a drastic transition in my last year of high school. We knew in the foster care system, we had to make it out, and through the Young Adult Program (YAP), that goal would be obtainable. The YAP program helped pay for living expenses and college tuition. I was two weeks away from starting college when the funding for YAP was cut. Many kids had to move out of their transitional homes and their college dreams shattered. It was hard to see so many people going in the right direction be halted in their tracks, and have no idea in what direction to go.”
“Angie Thomas, the Director of the Life Skills Training program at the Children’s Home, was and is still a big part of my life. She helped get me started at college. I chose to pursue a degree in Social Work at Grambling State University in Grambling, LA. She went with me to sign up for classes and guided me in the direction of what I wanted to do. Grambling State is an amazing school and was very inspirational in helping me find my path not only through college but in life. They pushed me to be the best version of myself I could be. They knew the important work I was doing for the Foster Care system and enriched me with the knowledge and skills needed to obtain my goals.”
“When I started college, a position in Life Skills Training program opened up – Peer Support Specialist. I would be assisting life skills, teachings teens, doing group activities, and skills classes. I would be bridging the worlds of foster care and life skills. Balancing work and college was tough. Even tougher when I adopted my younger brother. Some days I wanted to give up, but I realized I was not only fighting for myself but for other youth who were watching me. During my time with Life Skills, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Social Work. I am so appreciative of what was taught to me by my peers and our youth. The Children’s Home does not only care for the work but cares for us as individuals. When someone goes through something at the Home, we are supported and go through it together. My Life Skills family was there for me for many of my darkest times. What I thought would be a temporary job would be almost 6 years of some of the best years of my life. Life Skills was not only a job but a family. I’m so appreciative of my time there.”
Did you say you adopted your brother while in college?
“My brother Kewuan and I grew up in foster care together. We grew up through each other’s pain. While I was starting to work in Life Skills, he was transitioning out of living at the Children’s Home and moved in with my oldest brother. Due to certain circumstances, he could no longer look after him. At age 21 I was faced with a heavy decision. I had to pray hard, I was still finding my way in the world. The Lord eventually led me to make that decision, and me and Mrs. Angie Thomas drove down to Baton Rouge and picked him up. Having custody of him taught me a lot about patience and reflection of the time when I was a teen and how I acted. We worked hard to get him through high school. I wanted him to go to college like me but that wasn’t for him. It was tough for me to understand but soon I would realize that success is paved with many different paths, and college wasn’t his and doesn’t have to be everyone’s. He could be a pain like any brother can be, but I love him so much. My years of Life Skills helped prepare me for that life-changing time. It was financially tough sometimes but thank God for my Like Skills family, anything we needed or didn’t have, they were there. To this day they still check up on him. This group has become so heavily involved in every aspect of my life.”
Who also played a role in helping you on your journey?
ISF (International Student Foundation) (2014-2020): “This is a faith-based organization that is led by spirituality but not forced on the students. Having an ISF mentor was terrific, it allowed me to open up to someone and build a relationship I hold to this day. Some of my most memorable highlights would be going to Guatemala on a mission trip. Being a part of this experience taught me that even though I come from difficult circumstances, there may be others going through worse. I see the strength in the people who get up every day and fight on to see another one. Leadership retreats with ISF are so amazing because I get to meet other young adults who have been in similar life experiences as me.”
Foster Parent Conference (2015): “I shared some personal insights as a former youth on how we saw personal treatment and what were some ways workers, foster parents, or any supportive adult can actively engage in what youth need and want. I discussed how to communicate with foster youth effectively and some tools to help aid in that process.”
Task Force (2017): “This opportunity created a voice for those of us who aged out of the foster care system. This Task Force started during the 2015 legislative session to study the public resources and financing options for programs to assist youth aging out of foster care in Louisiana. This was precipitated by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) decision to end the Young Adult Program (YAP) in July 2013. YAP had allowed for ongoing financial and case management support for youth reaching the age of majority while in the foster care system. DCFS, legislators, and advocates joined together to raise awareness around the need to provide youth who will exit foster care at age eighteen with opportunities involving a comprehensive transition planning process focused on the development of independent living skills in areas such as:
• Establishing safe, stable, and affordable housing.
• Accessing health insurance and healthcare services.
• Completing an educational/vocational training program.
• Pursuing employment opportunities.
• Creating healthy, permanent connections.
Many caring people from state government agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, collaborated to enact this legislation and serve on this Task Force. The goal was to bring together individuals with experiences in advocating for this population of youth. We helped provide the legislature with research-based recommendations on how Louisiana can more fully and adequately serve youth aging out of foster care. Louisiana wants to ensure these youth achieve enhanced life outcomes.”
Capitol Internship (2017): “This experience not only changed my life, but it shifted our state of Louisiana. When I got invited to do this first-ever internship at the state capitol, I had to write an essay about my experience and what were some issues addressing the foster care system. We also had to testify before the Senate committee. During our testimony, our group would try not to become emotional, but the room would erupt with our passion. Sometimes vulnerability can be a stepping stone to victory, which is what happened. I was able to meet many influential people, and enlighten them about our system and what was needed to change it for the better. After this experience, I started to pay more attention to politics and how they can be instrumental in changing children’s lives. “The signing of the Foster Care Bill to 21: This day was fantastic as my peers & I got to go to Baton Rouge, LA, to the State Capitol to watch the bill we fought so hard for signed into law. This day was so joyous because all the hard work we did was finally becoming official.”
LEAF (Louisiana Elite Advocacy Force) formally LYLAC: “LEAF consists of alumni foster youth who join the organization to ensure the betterment of the foster care system by working together to create a powerful voice of change. Marketa Walters, DCFS Secretary is directly involved with the work we are doing through LEAF. She is very supportive of our board and of us as individuals alongside DCFS in its entirety. Having DCFS support us the way they do makes my peers and I feel that our voice is finally being heard and action is being taken.”
CFSR (Child and Family Services Review): “This opportunity allowed me to bring insight as a person who has touched the foster care system. I brought my experience and expertise in the evaluation of the Louisiana foster care system, which is how the organization thrives. They evaluate all the data that is collected to analyze what can be improved or changed to make the foster care system better for all involved. I was able to participate in the state, and I was lucky enough to go to Washington D.C. as one of the selected few to join in some of the final work of the analysis part of the process.”
CASA Speaking Engagement (2018): “This was a fantastic moment talking about my journey throughout the system. I spoke on how I overcame the trials and adversities that I was facing within the system.”
Social Work Conference (2020): “While here I was able to lead my session, which was covering “working with teens.” This opportunity was significant because I was one of the students chosen to present at the conference alongside professors. I was nervous at first, but I used all the training, education, & skills I had to deliver an excellent presentation.”
What do you think about Secretary Walters?
“Wow! I don’t even know where to begin. Just knowing someone so powerful, loving, caring, and God-loving such as Marketa Walters has been such a tremendous joy. She is such an amazing individual who has been passionately fighting for foster youth and their success for a while and does such a great job at what she does. Secretary Walters is not only a major advocate for the foster care system but she is a big advocate and permanent supporter in my life as well. I will never forget when I called and asked for a recommendation for grad school and she made time in her busy schedule to help me out, and at that moment I knew this would be a long-lasting, positive relationship. It feels so amazing to get wellness checks from Secretary Walters because to know one more person believes in me and what I do is an amazing feeling I cannot shake and it pushes me every day to continue doing the things I love and am destined to do.”
What do you do when you are not changing laws or serving on boards?
“I’m always busy and don’t have a social life. I love to bake and have a side business that is doing very well and keeps me very busy. My business is called ‘J’s Snack & Shack’. People love the strawberry cheesecake, classic chocolate chip, and tea cake cookies. I also love cooking, especially baked and grilled dishes more than anything. I have always loved cooking and was very keen to learn from anyone in the kitchen. I love singing, music, writing, and journaling. These are enjoyable avenues to express my feelings. Every day I am trying to expand my knowledge by reading anything I can get my hands on. I enjoy time with loved ones and just relaxing when I can.”
What would you like to tell any Foster Youth who reads this article?
“As youth follow my story it is very hard to talk about painful things and travel back down that road. It is very hard to deal with it, but realize how much your story can help and inspire others who are looking up to you. Never give up no matter how hard life can get or may be at the time. That even in the darkest moments of life you can always find a speck of light. Sometimes you have to grasp that speck of light and hold onto it. It will eventually lead to or turn into sunshine. I am rooting for you always, I want to see us happy, enjoying a peaceful state of mind. Going through a suicidal part of my life and praying to God to take me away because I felt worthless, I never thought I’d be here today, I’m so inspired to have met positive people who have turned that mindset around. I felt purposelessness, I heard it, but I only had control of my life, and anything that was said to me that was negative rested solely on me to either accept or rise above it. I always try to think positively and instill that in others, try to see the positive in everything. How can I make this bad day into a good one? You can be the best that you can be if you want to be, no one can determine that for you but you.”