Last week, I attended a conference called CHMACY at the Asilomar conference grounds in Pacific Grove, California. A group known as United Advocates for Children and Youth gave me a scholarship so I went to learn more about who they are and what they do.
United Advocates for Children and Families (UACF) is a non profit organization with a mission to improve the quality of life for all children and youth with mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges and to eliminate institutional discrimination and social stigma. They empower parents, caregivers, children, and youth through education, training, and technical assistance programs and services to ensure families are present at every level of decision making. They keep families informed on important news and events by providing monthly opportunities for networking and collaboration and extensive communications and outreach efforts . UACF also operates a direct services program for and by families in various counties of the state. It is free to belong.
There were many interesting moving parts to this CHMACY conference. As a mental health advocate and teacher in this area for many years now, I couldn’t figure out why I’d never heard of them. Their goal is to collect information from the various counties throughout California and be a voice for children and families in Sacramento. They track closely what’s happening with legislation, if current legislators are friends and allies (or not), and lobby for mental health needs on behalf of the marginalized voices of the youngest Californians.
I met some amazing people. They were county employees, parent advocates, social workers, and so forth. They worked in schools and in agencies and for the government. My favorites, though, were youth advocates. I met and spoke with young heroes in a group called Youth in Mind who were activists, consultants, and advocates. Many were 20 somethings (barely) who had “lived experiences.” That means quite likely they had run away from abusive home scenarios (foster or otherwise) or had been kicked out of their homes for various reasons. Many had lived homeless for different periods of time. They had figured out a way to take their experiences and help others, and they had amazing stories and hutzpa.
After a day or so of listening to stories, I realized I was not familiar with these groups or with this conference because unless a person is in the foster system or goes to prison, they do not have access to many of these services. Sometimes, even then it’s hard to figure out how to access them. That didn’t make much sense to me. Shouldn’t there be a group out there trying to intervene two steps BEFORE prison and foster care and make the services easy to navigate?
No question that ALL families with children experiencing mental health issues could use a helping hand. Many times, they don’t speak up for fear of being stigmatized. They may not have the resources where they live or even if they do have resources, they might not be able to pay for them. They may not know where to start. Schools often dodge the issue for fear they may have to pay for them. Churches say to pray harder and are often not equipped with the right tools for desperate families. I’ve heard many people tell me churches kicked them out and they were devastated. When they need spiritual strength most, they are abandoned. (Bad churches. Shame on you.) Meanwhile, the kids don’t miraculously get better because the adults can’t figure out a plan. They get worse.
So here’s what I’m going to do. There is this model called Parent Cafes (evidence-based and successful!) where parents of children experiencing mental health challenges can come and discuss what they need. I’m going to start one in Shasta County. Parents brainstorm and network and chat. Discuss what’s working and not working in their counties. (By the way, Shasta/Tehama/and all surrounding counties have NO REPRESENTATION and I believe the worse drug issues in the country last time I looked. Obviously, that correlates to more prevalent mental health problems.) After the cafes, notes are sent to Sacramento for a voice so they can at least not claim ignorance as to what’s happening in the north part of the state with the kiddos and their families. And parents feel supported in their darkest days.
Parents and families are the crux of our societies. It is vital we take care of our children and their needs. It won’t be long before they’re running the show. When I look at the inspiring stories of the young adults I met at this conference, I have so much hope. Thanks, UACF, for giving me this vision into what’s happening in California. I know, without question, we can make a difference.