Experiences are what make us or break us. My childhood experiences and the time I spent in the Florida foster care system inspired me to become the resilient leader many people know me as today. Without these experiences, who knows how different my life would have turned out, or the values I would hold. One thing that has stuck with me is what it truly means to share your voice through these critical learning opportunities, and you may ask, what is “youth voice?” How does youth voice truly impact child welfare system?

Youth voice is exercising your right to be heard and be part of important decisions that impact your life. Youth voice can include such things as advocating for yourself and others. I exercise my voice by serving on a local leadership board and collaborating with individuals who have the same passion for creating changes in the foster care system. I am one of the youth leaders who serve on the Brevard Youth Leadership Council, supported by Brevard Family Partnership and SMILE for Budgie. Our vision is that all youth and young adults in the care system will have opportunities to grow and thrive. We focus on increasing quality foster homes, increasing youth engagement, improving mentors and life skills for youth in care, and helping other youth develop self-advocacy abilities. We are part of the One Voice IMPAACT (OVI) statewide network of youth councils supported by Selfless Love Foundation and Florida Coalition for Children.

Learning these valuable advocacy skills takes time and continuous effort, but knowing the potential impact on other youth is my driving force. When I was in foster care, I felt powerless to the decisions that were impacting me daily, and frequently moved for unfair reasons, lost close friends and connections to people that mattered. I often wondered who cared about me because those supposed to care kept giving up on me. I quickly learned how to become an advocate for myself through the help of my Guardian Ad Litem’s. These two outstanding individuals taught me what it means to be heard and helped connect me with the leadership organizations I work with today. I found my voice and learned how to help others share theirs.

My advocacy experiences have helped me learn tremendous leadership skills, grow confidence in my public speaking, build a network with community and state leaders, and participate in statewide youth leadership activities. These are the opportunities I hope all former foster youth may experience! It is important to remember that youth need space to feel valued and comfortable in sharing their stories. Helping youth develop their voice is critical for inspiring generations of leaders with the capacity for empathy and courage to help change the lives of other youth still in care. Life is ongoing and ever-changing, and so are the people learning to navigate it each day. Learning from my trauma and helping others build courage in sharing their experience has had the most incredible impact on my life. I hope it will have a similar impact on many others lives across the state of Florida.

You can help young people feel heard by signing the Youth Voice Pledge, developed by One Voice IMPAACT, due to Governor DeSantis declaring November 4th Foster Youth Voice Day in Florida. Help share this blog on social media and tell others that foster youth are just like all youth who need support and resources to achieve their dreams and become valued members of our community.

My name is Rayla James, I am twenty years old, and I currently live in Brevard County, Florida. I am a senior at the University of Central Florida working towards my bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. I advocate on both a local and state level, using my experiences in foster care to help others feel heard and inspire future resilient leaders.