SCCC student advocates for child welfare reform
Meets with Congress members, advances bills
By Meghan Byers
NEWTON — When Jilyssa Stevens, 20, of Vernon, went to Washington D.C. this May, she was determined to create change. Stevens, a sophomore at Sussex County Community College, was in the nation’s capital with the National Foster Youth Institute to advocate for improving the child welfare system – a subject in which she is well-versed, having had first-hand experience with said system.
“People think your parents had to die or be drug addicts, or that you’re a bad kid,” Stevens said, explaining some common misconceptions about foster youth. “It’s not true. Things just happen. People won’t give you the chance to redeem yourself; they already have a preconception of who you are.”
The National Foster Youth Institute (NFYI), primarily a West Coast initiative, is dedicated to giving a voice to those who have been through the foster care system. Each year it lends its support to the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, which has hosted a “Shadow Day” for the past five years allowing both youth and alumni of the foster care system to gain a better understanding of the role of Congress. Participants shadow their representatives, take part in leadership training programs, and learn how they can make their voices heard.
“People never really understood my situation,” Stevens said. “I was always moving around and changing schools; it was hard. But that is why I have so much resilience. I’ve already overcome so much.”
Stevens, who was born in Brooklyn but has spent the majority of her life in Sussex County, was one of only 119 individuals selected to go to Washington with the NFYI this spring. The group’s efforts had concrete results: a bipartisan set of five bills, all aimed at transforming the child welfare system. One of the main issues addressed in the proposed legislation included improving services for older foster youth – a change which could help prevent homelessness.
“In the eyes of the law you’re an adult, but your life really isn’t together,” Stevens explained. “You’re on your own, you’ve aged out of the system, and you’re lost.”
The bill would raise the age of eligibility for housing assistance and other supportive services to 23, giving young people a better chance at building a foundation for their lives.
As of late June, all five bills had passed through the House of Representatives and moved on to the Senate.
Stevens met with several Congressional Representatives during the course of the trip, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur (R), and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). However, it was California Rep. Karen Bass (D) whose words impacted Stevens the most.
“She told us, ‘This journey doesn’t stop here,’” she recounted. “‘Go home and take these skills and tools that you’ve learned, go home and get to work.’”
At a time when controversy loomed over Washington, Stevens walked away from the nation’s capital feeling empowered.
“I didn’t realize how simple it could be to start a movement and really make a difference,” she said.
Stevens has been working to make a difference long before her trip to Washington, helping out with organizations such as Meals on Wheels in her spare time. She currently volunteers her time at a nursing home, working with Alzheimer’s patients.
“I love the history that they have,” she said, “and the stories they tell – stories and wisdom that we’ll need, because history repeats itself.”
This past school year Stevens also served as SCCC’s Student Ambassador, and helped to create a “positive news board” – a reaction to what she said seemed like an overwhelming amount of negative news. Unveiled shortly after the November election, the idea quickly took off with the student population.
“The board was filled up by the end of the year,” she said..
In September she will serve as the Public Relations Representative to SCCC’s Student Government Association, a position she defined as “bringing people together.”
"This is an exemplary student who has overcome tremendous obstacles," said SCCC President Jon Connolly. "This has been a real adventure for her and we are very proud to call her one of our own. The future is very bright for this young woman."
Asked how she remains positive, Stevens said, “I have to be. I can’t get anything accomplished if I’m negative.”
As a current psychology major, Stevens hopes to one day work in holistic-based mental healthcare. “I want to continue my education for as long as I can,” she said.
In the meantime, she plans to continue working with the NFYI as they move toward establishing themselves on the East Coast. Stevens will also apply to go to Washington again next year – but this time as a group leader.
“It’s good to dream big,” said Stevens. “If you believe it, you can achieve it.”
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