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What can adults do to help youth become self advocates / stand up for themselves?
What do YOU think? Share your comments below!

Some say that leaders are made. Others argue that leaders are born. I believe both of these statements to be true. Over the past ten years I have witnessed how certain people exhibit their natural leadership skills while others have to work at it. I consider myself a person that, due to unforeseen circumstances, had to learn how to stand up for herself. The truth is that I was never a natural-born leader. When I was young I remember sitting in the back of my classroom and letting other students speak up and be the center of attention. I am sure my sexual orientation had something to do with this. The truth is that I knew I was gay from the time I was in kindergarten. By the time I entered elementary school, I knew that the last thing I needed was to draw attention to myself. That was the case in the subsequent years of my schooling.

Then when I moved to the United States in 2001 I realized that sitting in the back seat and pretending that I did not exist was not going to get me anywhere. New York City, which is the city that I arrived in as an unaccompanied youth, is a tough city where only the strongest can survive (or so the saying goes). It is a city where "natural selection" can be experienced at its peak.

I say this because, while I was able to find a job soon after I arrived in New York City, my skills, to say the least, had much to be desired. Though I had the energy of a 16-year-old, I was negligent and clumsy; I lacked the discipline and the organizational skills needed in order to do well in a job – and in life. Not surprisingly, eight months after I started working I burnt out and ended up in a hospital.

Soon after I was released from the hospital I was placed in foster care. There things were no different. I spoke Spanish; the staff spoke English. I had not finished high school and I was still an undocumented immigrant. After a few months of just sitting around the house and watching TV, I began to feel anxious. No one seemed to realize that I needed help. Or if they did, no one seemed to care. At least that was the message that the staff was sending me as a result of their inactions. Seeing that no one was paying attention to my needs I decided to take action. I started by asking questions to the residents of my group home. Luckily one of them was of Puerto Rican descent so he spoke a little Spanish and, as a result, was able to communicate with me. He told me about an organization that offered a number of social services and I decided to pay them a visit. While there I was able to sign up for therapy sessions, ESL classes, and I even asked for an attorney to represent me in court proceedings.

With these new services to support me, I began to feel enlightened and empowered. And soon after I began to receive these services I realized that there was much more to the foster care system than just shelter and food, so I began to advocate for additional services that would prepare me well for independence.

It’s been a little over ten years since I first set foot in the U.S., and since then I have learned that a good advocate, which I think is synonymous with a good leader, is not always born. A good advocate is someone that asks questions, someone that won’t sit around and wait for things to happen. What you as the provider can do is support the young person on his path to becoming an excellent leader. You do not have to wait for him to take the first step; begin asking questions (If you do wait, you may have to wait for weeks if not months). You can start by giving him information about services or opportunities that he can take advantage of. As they say, "knowledge is power." And it is that same power that will make him jump, with confidence, into the morass that independence has become.


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