Editor’s note: This story by Oakland reporter Doug Oakley originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune and other East Bay newspapers in March 2015. It was written on the occasion of the first public opening of the Foster Youth Museum, curated by USF Museum Studies alumnus Ray Bussolari. To read the article in its original context click here.
Foster Youth Museum in Oakland chronicles despair and hope
Now sober, 25, and preparing to graduate with a degree in philosophy from the University of San Francisco, Clark figured prominently in the Foster Youth Museum’s new exhibit called “Lost Childhoods,” which opened Friday March 6 in Oakland. At the media preview, Clark said he got the tattoo to impress his friends. The drinking and drugging probably had a lot do with the fact that his biological mother took him out of a stable foster care situation when he was 16, brought him home and enabled his addictions.
The museum’s heartbreaking displays are a slap in the face for anyone unfamiliar with the realities of foster care and the lives these young people live.
Expertly curated and photographed by Ray Bussolari and founded by Jamie Evans, the museum includes graphic artistic depictions of developmental disruption, incarceration, psychiatric hospitalization, medication, substance abuse, physical abuse, loss and finally, hope and transformation.
One collage tells the story, through official documents, of a Michigan woman’s experience in foster care that includes hearing notices committing her to psychiatric hospitalizations, bills for electroshock therapy and lists of medications she was told to take.
Another shows a homemade sanitary pad a woman remembers devising that used stacks of toilet paper stapled together because her foster family was too cheap to pay for supplies. Still another shows underwear and shoes issued in a juvenile detention center and a hair weave to show how kids get their hair cut when they are incarcerated.
But you turn a corner and there is the section on transformation and hope.
Haydee Cuza, 43, of Pinole, is featured in the transformation and hope section. Cuza was homeless at age 15 and in foster care from ages 16 to 18.
“Don’t go through this feeling sorry for foster kids,” Cuza said. “People get stuck in pity and they feel overwhelmed. My foster parents saved my life. I think I was one of the lucky ones.”
Even so, she was homeless again when she was emancipated at 18 and had a child to care for.
Clark was in foster care from ages 4 to 16, but when he was taken out, “that’s when my drug use really ramped up.”
“The museum is awesome because people can take a second to think through foster care,” said Clark. “It’s an invitation to see an alternative lifestyle. I struggled with drugs and alcohol and was able to overcome obstacles. To my knowledge, there’s nothing that’s been done like this ever before.”
Evans, who works in youth leadership development, said she got the idea for the Foster Youth Museum while working with a group of former foster youth who were writing curriculum to train child welfare supervisors.
“People kept talking about items they had from foster care they could bring in to trainings to show social workers,” Evans said. “I thought, why don’t we collect them, put them in an exhibit and use them in training so they can see them at their own pace.”
The exhibit, until now, has been shown only at conferences and trainings.
“We weren’t thinking, let’s tell the bad stories, we were thinking, let’s tell the true stories,” Evans said. “This is not about hopelessness. It’s about hope.”