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Catching a Vision for Families


Catching a Vision for Families

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Jessica Valdez just wanted a job. In 2000, Valdez, a psychology major at Vanguard University, didn’t see what clear path awaited her upon graduation. So when an opportunity arose for her to work with Olive Crest, a Los Angeles-area organization that advocates for youth and families in crises, she enthusiastically applied. Once hired, she started assisting the foster care intake coordinator, working with the county to place children in foster care with safe and healing families.

Although she didn’t know much about the foster care or adoption systems, she did know one thing: the value and importance of a safe and stable family.

“Growing up my family wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty amazing,” she says. “As I looked at my home life and then considered where these children were coming from, I realized that we all need good families. People need to experience a stable environment to know their true value and to reach their potential.”

To Valdez’s surprise, what started as a job quickly became a vocation, as she learned about the reality that 20,000 children in the region alone desperately need homes, how few available homes there are, and how the children who do get placed need strong support and encouragement.

“I was overwhelmed by the children’s stories and by how our work really does matter in changing their lives,” she says. Fighting for those children became her focus and soon she found a unique way to offer that help. While at a training seminar at the University of Southern California, she heard about digital storytelling and how children could use technology to help them process their journey. The prospect of this kind of program fascinated Valdez.

“When we start working with the kids, we already know parts of their story,” she explains. “And the kids have been told what their story is — judges and social workers have made decisions about their lives. So where do the kids get their voice?”

In 2010, with an Olive Crest co-worker’s assistance, Valdez began to implement that program for foster children. First, she recruited staff members to engage in recording their own stories so they could better understand how difficult and intimidating the process can be — especially for many children who have rarely told their story to anyone.

From there, Olive Crest started weekly workshops for the kids. It’s a 25- to 35-hour intensive commitment, which includes everything from choosing images and music to recording to editing. By creating a two-to-five-minute video that combines photographs, animation, sound, music, text, and their narrative voice, kids have a say about how they feel about what’s happening to them. They share, from their perspective, a timeline of their journey of who they are and from where they’ve come.

Valdez and her staff have found that at the beginning most kids don’t want to tell their story, but by the end, they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished. It’s a therapeutic way to empower the children — and their families.

Sixteen-year-old Valeria and her adoptive mother, Renae Kennedy, discovered this truth last year. At first Valeria was unsure of the process because she suffers from visual and auditory processing disorder and has a difficult time expressing her emotions verbally. But by the workshop’s end, she had produced a video in which she took pride.

“This was such a positive experience for her,” says Renae. “Jessica was so patient with her, and was able to break down her story and allow her to put visual aids to aspects of her life that felt important to her.”

Renae admits that the experience proved significant for her as well.

“I know Valeria’s story, but it was powerful for me to see it through her eyes and to remember that her journey didn’t start with me.”

Valdez, now Olive Crest’s foster and adoption programs director in Los Angeles, is passionate about the work she’s accomplished. The digital storytelling program, the only one of its kind in the L.A. region, has proved successful, with more than 50 stories now created. It has provided an opportunity for foster children and their families to connect and create bonds that would have been more difficult without the program.

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