On Friday I took off my fabulous shoes and placed them on the feet of a 24 year old young woman. I had a strong feeling they would look infinitely more amazing on her. They did and I suggested Sashauna keep them. As she eagerly strapped them on she noticed the label, "they are Jimmy Choos".
"Cool." I told her. "I didn't know I had Choos. They are yours now."
I slid my feet into her worn out Old Navy flip flops clumsily walking like I was wearing pedicure slippers. Sashauna, held her head high, thrust her shoulders back, hips forward and owned her womanly stride.
In switching shoes, I was struck by the absurdity of feeling more connected to Sashauna. Could I really understand what it was like to be in her shoes by literally walking in her shoes?
Sashauna was removed from her mother's custody at age 6 when her three year old brother was murdered in front of her by the boy's namesake -- his own father. From that point Sashauna and her seven siblings were in and out of foster care. Her Mom, a product of the system herself, consistently found herself with abusive men and she struggled with addiction. When the mother was sober she would win her children back. Which meant those kids never had the chance to be adopted by a healthy family. Unfortunately, this yo-yo scenario is an all too typical tale. Sashauna was moved from one unsettling place to the next until she "aged out" at age 18, and has been fending for herself ever since.
I met Sashauna about 18 months ago when a random act of kindness led me along a journey I had never anticipated. I met Sashauna not long after I founded a nonprofit, A Sense of Home (ASOH) that creates homes for aged out foster youth. The model is based on my original random act -- harnessing donated furniture, appliances & house hold items, volunteers-- in barn raising fashion -- to make the first ever permanent living space for an aged out youth feel like "home". Sashauna received the 7th home created and upon first encounter, not someone I thought I would ever be able to truly connect with. She hung her head low and mumbled as she studied the cracks in the pavement. She struggled to accept the donated furniture and appliances that we volunteers installed in her apartment to make it feel like a dignified dwelling and "home". It was the first time she hadn't been a guest in someone else's place. Her first chance to feel safe and secure and place her clothes in her very own dresser.
Aging out foster youth are more likely than those in the general population to not finish high school, be unemployed, be dependent on public assistance, have addiction issues, find themselves in prison, homeless, or parents at an early age. With no means to furnish her space and roughness encircling the exterior, Sashauna's achievement of securing an apartment and beating the odds didn't feel particularly rewarding. The newly amassed community of loving volunteers were in her apartment to change that. But Sashauna struggled to accept the open hearts of strangers. Noticing a level of discomfort, we left a little earlier with a few finishing touches to be completed by Sashauna with just one volunteer, Maryam.
In the intimate space of Sashauna's apartment the two women struck up a friendship. And once all the volunteers left, Sashauna was able to revel in the beauty of what had taken place. Maryam was also transformed by the experience and became one of the most passionate ASOH volunteers.
The recipients of ASOH are supposed to "pay it forward" and volunteer at the creation of a sense of home for another youth. But Sashauna struggled to find the time in between tending to her seven younger siblings. Two with their own children. She had become a mother to all of her siblings. Part of Sashauna's struggle to receive the kindness of strangers was that her entire life had been about giving to others. She had never been the recipient of anyone's focus.
Sashauna finally found an opportunity to pay it forward and experienced the magic of becoming immersed in a community of giving. Sashauna learnt to trust, and was able to truly believe that there are good people in the world. Moreover she learnt that if she showed up and met such individuals half way, together they could create magic. She was able to observe that the many tiny acts of kindness performed by many amounted to service for the greater good and a celebration of our connection as one.
Working as a community of love, serving as the village once did, yields more than a sense of home. For the recipient youth it affords self worth, pride, dignity, an affirmation that they matter and that they can be as successful as their new inspired environment . For all involved it educates, offering a deeper understanding of the those from differing places across the socio-economic,racial and ethnic spectrum.
Sashauna learnt the invaluable lesson that individuals, like herself, can have a profound impact on our communities. She also learnt that when we pull together to form a community that gives outside of the our circle of comport to share the strength of our kindness we erase lines of division.
Springing from her many experiences paying it forward Sashauna was able to tap into and unleash her gratitude, style, drive, passion, impressive work ethic, wisdom, creativity, and sense of adventure. In displaying her many wonderful attributes through the paradigm of ASOH, Sashauna was able to earn an internship at Burberry, the ability to partake in a study abroad program last summer in Spain, a position working at the GO Campaign and now working alongside iconic designer, Meredith Baer. Sashauna just returned from a trip to Bali where friends of ASOH embraced her with their generous hospitality. Through all of these many, enriching experiences, Sashauna has learnt to mother herself.
Yesterday as we created our 95th home, I returned to Sashauna her flip-flops. The Jimmy Choos are hers. But I learnt in my shoe exchange that the best way to walk in another's shoes is to to walk alongside of them. I am with Sashauna for life. I am excited to witness the expanding impact she will have on many. I am excited to see her step into and own her mantle as a role model. Not just for foster youth, but all young women.
May is Foster Care Month. Which generally inspires awareness about adopting foster youth. Every year, there is upwards of 35,000 young people "aging out' who were never adopted. They are without family nor community. We can adopt them as young adults. We do that in our own way at ASOH but anyone can -- by offering them good career jobs. ASOH has an all foster youth team. It's a small team of four addressing a great void. Our efforts are but a drop in the bucket. We hope and trust that it becomes a wave -- led by foster youth - for foster youth.