New Collaboration Amplifies Youth Voice in Addressing Mental Health Issues

New Collaboration Amplifies Youth Voice in Addressing Mental Health Issues

Last week, California Youth Connection (CYC) — in partnership with Youth In MindYoung Minds Advocacy, and VOICES – announced a collaboration that is focused on engaging transitional aged youth (TAY) like Torres with California’s mental health systems. Over the next three years, the youth-led effort – funded by a grant from the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission – will conduct outreach, provide training, and lobby policymakers with the intention to reduce stigma around mental health and to improve access to services.

Amber Twitchell of VOICES wins Nonprofit Leadership Award

Amber Twitchell of VOICES wins Nonprofit Leadership Award

Describe your organization:

Voice Our Independent Choices for Emancipation Support (VOICES), a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and empowering foster youth in their transition to independence, was founded in Napa County in 2005 as a one-stop community and resource center. Three years later, the model was replicated in Sonoma County, and since then, VOICES programs have also expanded into Santa Clara and Monterey counties.

VOICES Sonoma is committed to authentic youth engagement and providing youth with the support necessary for achieving successful outcomes. VOICES utilizes an innovative Youth Engagement Model focused on empowering each youth, integrating resources and services, and working with the entire community to address the barriers youth face as they leave various systems of care. The youth of VOICES are not only recipients of social services, they are active leaders in supporting their peers, guiding the evolving vision of program delivery at each site and ensuring that the authentic voice of youth is heard throughout the County.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I am passionate about the work I have the opportunity to do every day. I have worked in the youth development field for over 16 years and consider it my mission to ensure that young leaders in our community are listened to and respected. Every day I have the opportunity to experience how amazing and resilient the human spirit truly is. I am passionate about supporting youth in learning how to care of themselves, use their voices to change the world, and overcome challenges to realize the future they dream of. I value working in partnership with others to come up with ways to create changes that will make our community better for our future generations.

What is your role in the organization?

Director VOICES Youth Center

What achievement are you most proud of?

In 2014 VOICES received a three-year grant from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation to convene Sonoma County transition age foster youth as stakeholders and experts to identify and address systemic, county-level barriers facing foster youth in their transition to independence. Through their meetings and research, the Youth Cohort developed and refined four recommendations for transforming outcomes for foster youth in Sonoma County in the areas of independent living, housing, health and wellness, education and employment. Each of these recommendations is both critically impactful and eminently achievable. These recommendations were released in May of 2016 in a published report titled Changing the Story; Recommendations to Improve Services for Transition Aged Youth in Sonoma County.

In order to implement the recommendations put forward by the Youth Cohort, a group of Sonoma County leaders, all of whom support the health and well being of transition-age foster youth, have formed the Sonoma County Coalition for Foster Youth (SCCFF). The SCCFY brings together the expertise, passion and influence necessary to implement the recommendations and make the necessary changes to the foster care system in Sonoma County.

What is your biggest challenge today?

VOICES youth are affected by past trauma in numerous ways, including a high incidence of homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, substance abuse, and mental illness. Former foster youth suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at 2 times the level of U.S. war veterans. Our biggest challenge is helping youth connect with appropriate, affordable mental health services to help address these traumas. Limitations on Medi-Cal supported treatment, lack of mental health providers and the stigma associated with reaching out for health all lead to many youth not receiving the help they need in order to overcome past trauma and excel in their lives.

What is the next major project either under way or on the horizon?

National statistics indicate the 84% of foster youth want to go to college but only 20% will actually go to the Junior College and only 2- 9% of all former foster youth will attain a bachelor’s degree This past year, in partnership with Impact 100 Redwood Circle, VOICES developed and launched the Youth Education Navigator (YEN) Program. The purpose of the YEN Program is to provide tailored and individualized support to 40 foster youth interested in attending Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University or some other career-technical program.

The Education Navigator housed at VOICES provides youth with a range of supports, including bridging the divide between high school and college, supporting matriculation, and providing emotional and educational guidance during attendance at local colleges. Additionally, the Navigator works directly with youth to provide support in accessing academic counseling; ensure youth are aware of and apply for all financial aid benefits; support youth in coping with the stresses of life after high school; and connect youth to services related to emotional well-being.

On the horizon VOICES is exploring a partnership with Mt. Diablo Unified School District to build a VOICES Program on the campus of Mt. Diablo High School. Our hope is to empower students to use their voice in a safe and positive manner to create change on their high school campus. We believe that with leadership opportunities the school will recognize lower suspension rates, higher overall attendance rates and an increase in youth’s college readiness.

What product or service would/or is helping you do your job more effectively?

VOICES would not be possible without the continued support from all of our community partners and specifically the County Child Welfare Systems and the County Juvenile Probation Departments. These entities work in close partnership with VOICES to create leadership opportunities and foster youth engagement in an effort to strengthen the services they offer.

There is no mandate or law the requires the counties to listen to youth; we are fortunate that the counties we work with truly believe in the power of youth voice and actually listen to and respond to these voices.

How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?

Over the next five years nonprofit organizations will continue to find new and innovative ways of partnering and working together. While many of us effectively work together now, we must find ways to be in true relationship with each other as funding for programs become more streamlined and targeted. Nonprofit leaders must be able to trust each other, put ego aside and engage in authentic (and perhaps scary) conversations with the clear intention being to best meet the needs of the people we serve.

Most admired businessperson outside your organization: Sheri McCoy, CEO of Avon


Current reading: “Blue Highways: A Journey Into America” by William Leaset Heat-Moon

Most want to meet: Fr. Gregory Boyle, S.J, Founder and CEO of Homeboy Industries

Stress relievers: Throwing the tennis ball for my dog, time with friends, cooking, wandering aimlessly through the desert.

Favorite hobbies: Camping, hiking, baking, dreaming on Pinterest

Social media you most use: I only use Pinterest. I have never had a FaceBook account or any other type of social media

Buzz word from your industry you hate the most: Evidence-Based Practices

Typical day at the office: Office?? I don’t have an office. I begin my day at 6:30 a.m. hit the dog park and am at VOICES Napa by 9 a.m.. I am usually back on the road headed to VOICES Sonoma by noon. By 6 p.m., in order to avoid traffic, I am usually back at the dog park or wandering aimlessly through Target trying to remember what I needed to pick up.


State law expanding foster care has created only modest gains, report says

State law expanding foster care has created only modest gains, report says

Tyler-St. Clair, 21, of Santa Rosa is one of a half-dozen young adults who spent a year assessing the county’s extended foster care services. They were expanded in 2012 to youth between 18 and 21 under Assembly Bill 12, a new state law aimed at helping older foster youth transition to independence.

Prescription of drugs to foster youth under scrutiny in Sonoma County

Prescription of drugs to foster youth under scrutiny in Sonoma County

Sonoma County is at the top of the list of counties with the highest rates of psychotropic prescriptions among foster youth. Nearly 23 percent of all local foster kids were on the drugs during the 12-month period that ended last June, nearly double the 11.8 percent rate for all 79,166 children who were in the state’s foster care system.

'Crush Cup' soccer tournament gives boost to young adults raised in foster care

'Crush Cup' soccer tournament gives boost to young adults raised in foster care

Charity fundraisers in Sonoma County can typically fall into the same pattern. There are wine auctions and beer festivals. The large bicycle races. And the 5Ks and 10Ks galore. While those types of events aid good causes, David Barnett wanted to do something for the county’s estimated 450 foster children and young adults without making the fundraising effort seem like a chore or duty — or like a lot of others held in the area.

Folks You Should Know - Amber Twitchell

Folks You Should Know - Amber Twitchell

Amber Twitchell is the director of VOICES, a youth-developed and -led community center that provides services to former and current foster youth, homeless youth, and other disconnected youth in our community. Her staff consists of 22 young people between the ages of 16-26, all of who have direct experience in various systems of care. 

Keller Williams goes RED for a good cause

Keller Williams goes RED for a good cause

On RED Day, KW associates across the country volunteer to Renew, Energize and Donate (RED) within their communities. The event is held on the second Thursday of May. As part of the local RED Day effort, Keller Williams Napa Valley spent the day pampering the youth at VOICES Napa.

Voices: A haven for youth in Sonoma County

Voices: A haven for youth in Sonoma County

On the northern edge of downtown Santa Rosa stands a two-story Victorian home that looks warm and inviting. Nobody lives there, but the living room is usually full. The house at 714 Mendocino Ave. serves as the headquarters for the Voices program, which aims to help youth ages 16 to 24 who are homeless, coming out of foster care or both.

Taking Charge

IN FIVE MONTHS, eight Napa teens have succeeded in doing what California's Department of Social Services has failed to do -- bring together various agencies dealing with foster care to create a cohesive, streamlined system of support efforts. With the help of a coalition of government and nonprofit agencies, the youth -- ranging in age from 15 to 21, opened the doors to VOICES (Voice Our Independent Choices for Emancipation Support), the first known youth-led center for emancipating youth.