A Foster Youth in Need Galvanizes a Community

I'm often telling friends how grateful I am for the sense of community I feel in my Venice Beach neighborhood. That's no little thing in LA. A lack of community is often the biggest complaint my friends have who live in other parts of town. (Okay, traffic, too: this is LA.)

Recently, I discovered an amazing way for people to come together as a community. The incredible experience was inspired by a young man named Barry Bartlett and captured in this video:

A child of the foster care system, Barry grew up going from one group home to the next. He never had a place he could truly call home. When Barry "aged out" of the system -- which happens when foster kids reach age 21 in California -- he basically had nothing and no one. A resourceful guy, Barry managed to find himself Section 8 housing. But he arrived there without a single household item to make his new space function or feel like "home."

But then Barry reached out for help from Foster Cares Counts and they sought help from me. I traveled to Long Beach, CA, and met Barry at his new apartment. He was living amongst a sea of black garbage bags which held his worldly belongings -- all the clothes he owned and his study materials. This was a situation I could help him do something about. I posted a request for secondhand furniture and household items on Facebook. The response was immediate.

Within 24 hours, we received commitments for donations to furnish Barry's home, from a sofa, to a dining table, to silverware, to a fridge -- everything he needed. Barry and I then drove around in a U-Haul from one generous person to the next. Friends joined us with their pick-up trucks. And Barry received the donations -- as well as the warmth, hugs and words of support from so many. It was on that drive that I realized what was happening: a group of disparate people were coming together, as one, to help this very deserving young man. 

We got all kinds of hand-me-downs. At first, Barry was overwhelmed about how to deal with such a hodgepodge. But together, we spruced, polished and repurposed the donations to create a cozy, beautiful home. Then we invited everyone who had donated to Barry's new apartment over for a housewarming. It was a magical night, me cooking alongside Barry, witnessing him able to make dinner for himself and others, in his own kitchen. The delicious food was made even more so by all of the love that went into making it and to making that night possible. 

A first-time host in his first home, Barry reveled in pride. He transformed from someone who'd always depended on others to invite him into their homes to someone who now welcomed his newfound community into his own home. For my part, there was sudden, deep meaning in just doing what I do. And the realization that it takes so very little to make a positive and real impact.

This wonderful journey with Barry inspired Jeanne Pritzker (the founder of Foster Care Counts) and me to create a new program -- a sense of home -- for foster youth as they age out of the foster system. The program gives volunteers the option of donating their own household items or working with others to artfully assemble welcoming first homes for foster youth as they "age out." It's a lot like what mothers and fathers do for their own children. Volunteers not only help create homes for young people who can really use them, they help create a sense of community for both the young people and themselves.

Change often begins when one person raises our consciousness. In this case, it was Barry Bartlett's courage to ask for help. The result, we hope, will be a volunteer program that grows into a meaningful movement creating hope and community.

Want to get involved? Sign up and help us create A Sense of Home for Barry's friend Marcellia and other youths who are aging out of the foster care system. (You can go here.)

It's often said that people who volunteer get back more than what they give. I think that's especially true when we volunteer together, as a community. The shared experience is both really fun and powerful. I can't begin to tell you how much I've gained, but maybe this surprise video that Barry wrote, recorded and posted on my Facebook wall last night will give you a hint. I was speechless.