Foster Youth Museum in Oakland Chronicles Despair and Hope

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- On his 18th birthday, Kevin Clark had "Forever Faded" tattooed on the inside of his biceps, a commitment to being wasted every day of his life: marijuana, heroin, alcohol, "basically everything you can imagine." 

Now sober, 25, and preparing to graduate with a degree in philosophy from the University of San Francisco, Clark figures prominently in the Foster Youth Museum's new exhibit called "Lost Childhoods," which opened Friday in Oakland. The museum, whose founder hopes to bring the exhibit to other venues, will be open Saturdays in March from 1 to 5 p.m. 

At the media preview Thursday night, 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." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Oakland Youth Dance Program Celebrates 20 Years

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- When Marianna Hester arrived here from Burlington, North Carolina, she was a shy 16-year-old with little confidence. 

For her, Burlington was a place "with no sidewalks, no BART, and if you don't have a car, you're not going anywhere." 

Her town had no dance programs she knew of, certainly not anything like Rite of Passage in Oakland, a youth dance program run by Deborah Vaughan and her staff out of Dimensions Dance Theater, which Vaughan started more than 40 years ago. 

Hester enrolled in the Rite of Passage program, learned to dance, put away her shyness and gained confidence that ultimately led her to college. The program is now in its 20th year, grooming kids from 8 to 18 in the big roomy halls of the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts on Alice Street. 

Vaughan said dance is a way to bring truth to the stage. For the kids in her program, that means tapping into their creativity, discipline and teamwork, which serve as a healthy alternative to the city's constant lure of crime and violence. 

"We always hear about the negative things that happen in Oakland in terms of violence, but there's so much creativity, too," Vaughan said. "Everything they do in the program overlaps into their lives. Once they finish a performance, they feel they have accomplished something, and they see the support from audiences and that encourages them to continue." 

They come out of the program "better human beings," Vaughan said, and better able to face Oakland's harsh urban landscape. 

"They motivated me to break out of my shell, basically," said Hester, who is now 21 and teaches hip-hop classes for the program. "They push you a lot. That's what motivated me to go to college. I was just thinking about going to Laney College, but I built this new confidence and applied to California State University East Bay and got in." 

Today, she is studying human development and wants to start her own day care center. 

Rite of Passage offers free programs in Oakland schools and paid classes all year round that cost about $150 for one of three sessions per year. 

Kids learn traditional West African, Haitian, Cuban and Brazilian styles and more modern genres such as jazz, hip-hop, tap and ballet. The dance program usually includes "guest stars" like professional musicians, poets and dancers who weave their craft into the program. 

At the end of each program, there is a final performance. Students can continue in an extension program and become "dance ambassadors" at schools, church events, fundraisers and other special events. Last year dancers performed at a Golden State Warriors game, Vaughan said. 

Students learn not only how to move their bodies but also the history and stories behind ancient cultural movements. 

"A great deal of our work has been about African and jazz dance, but we also teach the history of these dance forms and the events that occurred around them," Vaughan said. "Who were the people who did these dances and why they did they do them? It's an experience that makes you feel differently about life and how art can portray and bring to stage history and culture." 

Vaughan, who also is a retired Contra Costa College dance and health teacher, said she tries to expose her students to other arts with visits to area theaters and art museums. 

But it's getting onstage that really nourishes their personal growth, she said. 

"We want to encourage students through their creativity to understand they can accomplish anything they want to," Vaughan said. "This is a supportive and safe environment where they can bring forth their creative ideas." 

Vaughan grew up in Oakland housing projects near Seventh and Wood streets and later in North Oakland on 56th Street. She was a kid not unlike a lot of her current students when she discovered free dance classes in the city's recreation department under Bay Area dance legend Ruth Beckford. 

"I was 13 years old, and through her I discovered dance and all its possibilities," Vaughan said. "She saw something in me and encouraged me to attend her African-Haitian dances classes at the time. Those experiences helped me find myself as a person. They helped me establish a career and ultimately helped me form the dance company." 

That inspiration is what keeps her going, teaching new kids even after 20 years. 

Rite of Passage currently offers free classes at Oakland High School and Oakland Technical High School. Vaughan is trying to get more middle school kids involved and is currently offering free classes to the first 20 students from West Oakland and Westlake middle schools who walk in and sign up. The next program starts Wednesday. 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Warriors to Host to Host Sweetie, 105-year-old Warriors Fan at NBA Finals Game 1

By Doug Oakley
HAYWARD -- Rank has its privileges. If you're nearing your 106th birthday and you're a Warriors fan, rank means a free ticket in a suite Thursday at Oracle Arena for the first game of the NBA Finals matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

After word got out last week that the Warriors had a 105-year old fan named Sweetie who can talk sports just as well as any other fanatic, the team ponied up. 

"Well, they heard what I asked for," said Sweetie, whose daughter Lily Toney of Oakland asked this paper not to reveal Sweetie's real name or address because she lives alone. 

Sweetie, who was born in Ennis, Texas, and moved to the Bay Area in 1936, will turn 106 on June 12. 

Toney, 75, said a team representative called her shortly after this newspaper printed an online article Friday about Sweetie's age and decades-long love for the Warriors. 

"She's excited, and I get to be her press secretary," Toney said. "It's all fun. The Warriors are stressing it's a big thing for them too, but they want to make sure she enjoys the game and doesn't have a lot of distractions." 

That will probably mean whisking her from her VIP parking spot up to her suite and out of the way of prying media hordes, Toney said. 

Warriors coach Steve Kerr gave a shout-out to Sweetie after last Wednesday's conference title-clinching playoff game against the Houston Rockets. After practice on Monday, Kerr had more to say about his team's eldest fan. 

"What a great story ... 105 years old, following the Warriors for all these years," Kerr said. "I loved her message: 'Don't get the swell head.' That's always our message to the guys, but Sweetie had a better way of putting it than I did. "From what I gather, we're going to have her at Game 1, which I'm really excited about." 

Interviewed Friday, Sweetie said she enjoyed the final game of the Western Conference finals, and like many fans she was filled with angst. 

"Oh, I did like that last game," Sweetie said. "I loved it, but it made me kind of angry because I wanted to slap them boys for playing so sloppy in the first half," Sweetie said. "I enjoyed every bit of it." 

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