Anayah knows what it’s like to be on her own as a teenager – an experience common to youth transitioning out of the child welfare system. Born in Angola – which her family fled during the country’s civil war – Anayah entered care at the age of 15. After she transitioned out of care at 17, she survived homelessness and severe depression.
Despite the odds stacked against her, Anayah enrolled in university and gained a part-time job at a Toronto hospital. Her manager – who she learned was a former youth in care – helped her set her sights higher than she’d ever dreamed possible and became a valued mentor. With the encouragement of her mentor, she switched from a three-year degree to a four-year Honours program and set a new goal of attending graduate school.
“Foster kids are told all the time that we’re strong, that we’re resilient,” says Anayah. “Youth from care need mentors to show them how to use the skills and resiliency they’ve earned through their lived experience, and ensure they have excellent roads to success.”
Anayah’s mentor helped launched her on a trajectory of success she could never have imagined in her darkest days. In 2015, Anayah received the Queen’s Young Leaders award – a prestigious honour personally presented by Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Anayah won the award for developing CHEERS – an acronym for Creating Hope and Ensuring Excellent Roads to Success –a mentorship program by and for Black youth leaving the child welfare system. Without support, transitioning youth face steep barriers: about 60 per cent of homeless youth have child welfare experience, and less than half graduate from high school compared with 83 per cent of the general population. In addition to mentorship, CHEERS includes academic and career counseling, help with life skills like budgeting and housing, and mental health support to help both mentors and mentees process the childhood trauma they have each experienced.
“Oftentimes, Black youth go into foster homes where their caregivers don’t look like them, they’re taken to cities where nobody looks like them, so CHEERS is about providing a space for them to connect, network, support each other, and cultivate their resilience” says Anayah.
CHEERS began as a bright idea inspired by the impact Anayah’s mentor had on her life. Now it’s a program that Anayah plans to take nationwide. Thanks to a $600,000 commitment from BMO to fund mentorship programs, Children’s Aid Foundation is supporting CHEERS as it is piloted in Toronto.