Finding the right foster parents and reconnecting with his Indigenous family and Dene culture has made all the difference for one former youth in care in Surrey.
“I’m finally allowed to be proud of my heritage,” said 19-year-old Alex. He is one of many young people being acknowledged and celebrated during B.C. Child and Youth in Care Week, June 3-9. It’s a week that raises awareness about the barriers they face and fights the stigma that comes with being a youth in or from care.
Just a few years ago, Alex was a shy 16-year-old when he first came into the foster home of Rusty Whitford and his partner, Justin. “I was the quietest person. People would tell me I needed to get a voice. They’d tell me I needed to speak up. I was so shy.”
What people couldn’t see were the suicidal thoughts swirling inside. “I’d been hurt too many times before. Being invisible was a way of protecting myself.”
When Alex first arrived to live with them, Rusty and Justin were so worried about his mental health they sought treatment through the ministry’s Child and Youth Mental Health Services. He received ongoing trauma therapy until he and his therapist agreed he no longer needed to attend regularly. While he said depression will probably be a life-long challenge and he still has bad days, he said the therapy and his foster family’s support mean he now has some tools to better manage it all.
Alex, who felt safe enough to come out as gay and Two-Spirit soon after he’d moved in with Rusty and Justin (who both have Métis heritage), is just a few days away from finishing a spa esthetics program at a private college, rounding out the skills he gained previously in make-up artistry.
Two-Spirit, which is an Indigenous cultural term — a sacred space, sometimes thought of as a third gender embedded with historical reverence in many Indigenous cultures — means “having both the male and the female spirit walking inside,” he said. “I don’t have to identify with one or the other. I can call upon the power of both.”
A lot has changed for that once shy 16-year-old.
He now has his first job, working part-time at a local spa. He loves the work and is grateful for all the help his instructors gave him. “They were committed to making sure I was successful,” he said, referring to the challenges he sometimes has with reading and writing because of a learning disability.
And he’s grateful for a foster family he never imagined would be such an ideal fit. “Rusty and Justin saw who I was. They encouraged me and wanted me to be my authentic self. They’ve guided me through my late teens, and they’ve supported me every way they could.”
They also did what the ministry expects all foster parents to do — they worked hard to connect Alex to his cultural heritage. Rusty tracked down Alex’s extended family in Hay River through the K’atlodeeche Nation and discovered that six siblings, whom Alex had never met because of dynamics in his birth family, lived close by in the Lower Mainland. Since then, it’s not unusual for a full house of siblings to be seated around the table on special occasions.
Alex is a member of the Surrey Youth Advisory Council, for which he was recognized with a Heart in the City Award a few years ago. He also shares his experience in foster care and as an Indigenous, gay and Two-Spirit youth by co-facilitating the cultural training that Rusty conducts every few months with new foster parents in Surrey.
Rusty and Justin know that the cultural and inclusivity practices that are part of their everyday lives, such as attending powwows and other ceremonies — smudging as a spiritual practice, involvement in art and drumming, making cedar headbands and pine needle baskets — have positively impacted the mental health of both Alex and his younger brother, who now lives with them as well. As Alex added, “Having an extra nine aunts and uncles with 50 first cousins who love and support me has really created a sense of belonging in me.”
Alex said about Rusty and Justin, whom he calls his uncles, “They’ve given me the tools to reclaim my Indigenous family, culture and identity.”
Last names have been removed in this article to protect privacy.
Find out about fostering in B.C. through this video of Alex and his foster family: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEGdyM6FGTU