'Lost Childhoods' exhibit features foster youth
In a display box at the California State University, Monterey Bay Salinas Center for Arts and Culture inside the National Steinbeck Center, Melissa Leong’s lighter—decorated with artistic swirls and “Meli” spelled at the bottom left—sits alongside other personal items from current and former foster youth at the “Lost Childhoods: Unofficial Stories” exhibition.
The lighter was given to Leong by her boyfriend. According to the object’s description, handwritten on binder paper, “this lighter means so much to me because I have found someone to love me for every aspect of me, whether it may be good or bad.”
Leong, a 19-year-old originally from San Mateo, now serves as a youth advocate and foster liaison for Epicenter, a local nonprofit that provides services to transition-age foster youth—or people reaching adulthood and leaving the foster care system—in Monterey County.
Currently still in the foster care system through California’s Assembly Bill 12, which grants foster youth government assistance for people up to age 21, Leong first took part in the project with the nonprofit, California Youth Connection, or CYC.
Alongside other nonprofits, CYC brought other foster youth to tell their stories and share personal items that helped tell their experiences, first at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History for its Foster Youth Museum.
With the help of Epicenter, the exhibit then moved to the National Steinbeck Center and debuted on Feb. 2, accommodating both English and Spanish speakers.
The Salinas exhibit added artwork from unofficial foster youth, children living in the country illegally who do not live with parents or have experienced homelessness. Due to their citizenship status, they often do not receive institutional foster services.
An introduction to the exhibit by the CSUMB Salinas Center reads, “That’s why we created an exhibition with and about system involved and unofficial foster youth. We partnered with 18-25 year olds to tell their stories and share their creativity.”
The exhibit begins with a small chain link fence leading into the room where “Lost Childhoods” is housed.
According to Miranda Mossey, Program Coordinator at Epicenter, this is meant to emphasize the struggles and barriers undocumented youth go through as well. “The exhibit focuses on foster youth in the official system, but also undocumented homeless youth,” Mossey said. “So as the border, this is kind of the first entrance into the exhibit.”
Once inside, data points on posters describe disparities for official foster youth: 50 percent of foster youth receive a high school diploma, and less than 10 percent of those youth graduate from college, though Mossey says that number is likely lower. Eighty-five percent of foster youth struggle with mental health compared to eight percent of the general teen population.
The introduction for “Lost Childhoods” says 5,000 people transition out of foster care in California each year. There is no data on unofficial foster youth.
The Lucile Packard Foundation program kidsdata.org found there were 62,035 youth under age 21 in foster care across California in 2015, while 450 lived in Monterey County. The county had a foster child rate of 3.6 percent per 1,000 people, below the 5.8 percent amount statewide.
Above a full-length mirror, a question is inscribed on the wall, asking how patrons see themselves in the exhibit.
The description of “Lost Childhoods” gives context to the project, followed by personal items, stories and portraits of foster youth, which includes Leong’s. They center on five sections: “Developmental Disruption,” “Institutionalization,” “Powerlessness,” “Loss” and “Empowerment.”
“I think one of the best parts of the exhibit is it’s about the experiences young people go through,” Mossey stated. “More often, you’ll hear from a (social) worker, you’ll hear from a politician, or you’ll hear from someone talking about (them.) But this is their experiences. You can’t get offended.”
Each section has personal items in glass display boxes on pedestals from foster youth, most of whom are from the San Francisco Bay Area. This includes Leong’s lighter.
The exhibit will temporarily close in early May to replace the content with works created by Monterey County foster youth, according to CSUMB Salinas Center Director Enid Baxter Ryce.
The personal objects include used underwear and a hospital gown that “Captain” wore because his group home had children reuse the same clothes as well as a framed picture of a former foster child “Valentino” as he kissed his husband “Marcus” at their wedding.
On the walls, the exhibit features black and white portraits of foster youth taken by San Francisco-based photographer Ray Bussolari that hang above people’s personal items.
A table towards the end of the exhibit sprawls out polaroid photos of the initial Feb. 2 debut, tissues, pens, pencils and five notebooks for patrons to write in. These notebooks address foster parents, undocumented children, “Dear Feelings/Emotions!”, one asking “What does FAMILY mean to you?” and “Questions or Comments about Foster Care.”
Five paintings, all framed in altarpieces with faux candles, are provided by the unofficial foster youth—undocumented people in a foster-like system—with captions explaining the pieces by the artists.
These were provided by Hijos del Sol Arts Productions, an East Salinas art studio that gives youth the opportunity to paint and express themselves through art.
Jose G. Ortiz, the founder of Hijos del Sol, sees the paintings as adding to the conversation: “There are still stories not told. We figured that if we can collaborate with our own stories, the children of undocumented situations, we can have a little bit more of attachment to the theme. Foster children come in different situations and shapes and forms,” he stated.
The artists are students of Ortiz, who clarified, “sometimes I’m their student.”
The exhibit ends with wooden letters sprawled on the wall, spelling “Take Action” first in Spanish, then English. Business cards then provide information on helping foster youth—from paid internships and jobs to paying for bus passes.
“It’s hard to look at all the pieces without wanting to do something,” Mossey said,
“El Despojo,” a large unframed painting by Ortiz, is next to the action section. It depicts a seated and barefoot man and woman, each sitting apart with children all around them and ancestors faded behind the group of people.
Ortiz drew inspiration from his indigenous grandmother in Mexico, who believed in the connection between people.
“It’s the beginning of a family, whatever family you got,” he described. “It could be an uncle. It could be two dads. It could sometimes just be you.”
For Leong, who took part in putting together the Salinas exhibit, she has been impressed by the exhibit’s artwork and stories in the museum.
“We can have families and we can have other things that people have. It’s just that we have to maybe work twice as hard for it, but it’s there,” she said.
As a free exhibit open during the Steinbeck Center’s regular hours, “Lost Childhoods” will also be open March 2 for the 1st Fridays Art Walk from 5 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. Hijos del Sol will hold a free arts workshop, and there will also be music, theatrical and spoken word performances. More information can be found on the CSUMB Salinas Center’s Facebook page.