Hawaii Foster Youth Receive National Award

Three young adults from Hawaii have received a national award that recognizes their outstanding leadership skills.  The National FosterClub annually recognizes 100 young people from across the country who demonstrate leadership, personal accomplishment, educational achievement, and service to their peers. FosterClub awardees range in age from 16 -24 and have spent a portion of their childhood in foster care.

Gernani Yutob, Jr. spent four years in foster care, including time in group homes and other facilities.  Today, he is a college graduate, a community role model, and a facilitator at EPIC ‘Ohana Inc., where he helps other youth aging out of foster care develop and implement their transitional goals.  Yutob, Jr. also spends time at the legislature advocating for improved foster youth services and programs.

“It feels great to be honored for giving back to the community. I did not expect this award,” Yutob Jr. said.  “But more importantly, the award spotlights the work of EPIC ‘Ohana and motivates the staff and clients to continue pursuing their goals.”

The Department of Human Services (DHS) contracts with EPIC ‘Ohana to work exclusively with foster youth.  Together, they strive to transform the child welfare culture through respectful, collaborative, solution-oriented processes that protect children, strengthen families, and enhance the health of the community.

Delia Ulima nominated Yutob, Jr. for the 2013 FosterClub Award.  Coordinator of the Hawaii Youth Opportunity Initiative (HYOI) with EPIC ‘Ohana, Inc., she told the FosterClub awards committee that “Gernani has developed into an exceptional young leader. He has served as a youth advocate for Hawaii Foster Youth Coalition and the HI H.O.P.E.S. youth leadership board for many years.  He is a wonderful role model and an inspiration not only to his fellow foster brothers and sisters, but to all those who are privileged to work with and learn from him.”

Yutob, Jr. served three years as president of the EPIC ‘Ohana program, Oahu HI H.O.P.E.S. Youth Leadership Board while attending college.  He says that experience provided him the political and social foundation he required to successfully lobby the 2013 legislative session on behalf of foster youth across the State.  He worked with the DHS director, family court, and legislators to increase Hawaii’s age for receiving higher education board payments to age 27, and to extend voluntary foster care to age 21.  He also lobbied for continued Medicaid coverage for aged-out foster youth until age 26.  Yutob Jr. says his future goals include attending law school, practicing family law, and becoming a family court judge.

Nanglar (Noy) Worachit a program assistant for HYOI, also received a 2013 Outstanding FosterClub Leadership Award.  The mother of two, vice president of HI H.O.P.E.S. Youth Leadership Board, and member of the Hawaii’s Juvenile Justice Task Force, worked with Yutob, Jr. to extend Medicaid coverage to foster youth until they reach the age of 26.

As a child, Worachit bounced between 15 foster care placements.  In an effort to be united with her siblings she also spent a year on the run.  During all that turmoil, she still managed to earn her GED and enroll in community college at age 16.

Worachit’s supervisor at HYOI nominated her for the 2013 Outstanding FosterClub Leadership Award.  “Noy is a very special young woman,” said Ulima.  “Not only is she a survivor, but she has a brilliant mind, a compassionate spirit, a strong need to seek justice for others, and the ability to communicate this need to others.”

In 2012, the Hawaii Partners in Development Foundation recognized Worachit as an Outstanding Community Contributor; she also received a fellowship with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.  Worchit’s future goals include attending law school and becoming a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL).

“I had no idea about the FosterClub nomination,” said Worachit.  “The award is exciting to me personally, but it’s even more important to the community because it recognizes the work of EPIC and the HI H.O.P.E.S Board.   Foster youth can now access all kinds of resources in one place.  There is a lot to look forward to.”

Robert (Pono) Heanu-Toyama agrees that foster youth are looking at a brighter future.  A youth outreach coordinator with the Hawaii Foster Youth Coalition (HFYC), he worked with Yutob, Jr. to advocate for voluntary extension of foster care until age 21.  Heanu-Toyama spent eight years in the Hawaii foster care system.  He lost both parents at an early age, and became estranged from his siblings at age 14.  Prior to turning 18 he was already living on his own.  Heanu-Toyama is currently pursuing a college degree in psychology.

“I never saw myself as a leader before.  This award is very exciting because it helps me see what I can do,” said Heanu-Toyama.  “As a native Hawaiian I focus on the cultural values of ‘ohana (meaning “family” beyond blood relation) and hanai (informally meaning “adoption” regardless of age) because I don’t have a family of my own.  I created a family within the Coalition.   We even refer to Coalition meetings as family gatherings.”

Additionally, Heanu-Toyama mentors children participating in the Kids Hurt Too Hawaii program, and youth in the HFYC program.  He helps transition-age youth set and pursue personal and academic goals and access available financial resources.  “Given the struggles he’s had, Pono still managed to get his GED, and create a healing place for himself and others,” said Cynthia White, the Executive Director of HFYC and person who nominated him for the FosterClub Award.  “Pono has the ability to make youth feel welcome, and to feel a sense of belonging.  He has lots of heart and vision for his work.”

The DHS contracts with both the HFYC and EPIC ‘Ohana to provide services and programs for foster youth.  Both organizations operate drop-in centers where youth can receive assistance with resume writing, filling out college applications, and registering for college.  Services and resources are free of charge to current and former foster youth.

For more information about youth services and programs offered through the DHS, visit www.humanservices.hawaii.gov.

For more information about EPIC ‘Ohana visit http://www.epicohana.info/homepage.aspx

For more information about the Hawaii Foster Youth Coalition visit http://hawaiiyouth.net/

Hawaii Foster Youth Coalition

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