Director, VOICES Sonoma.
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.
Having worked in the youth development field for over 15 years, Amber recently served on the Sonoma County Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, has served on the Board of Trustees for the West Sonoma Union High School District and launched a local coalition of nonprofits that organize and share information related to health inequities. Amber holds a master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration from CSU Sacramento and an undergraduate degree in Urban Anthropology from UC Davis.
What does VOICES do that other agencies don’t or can’t, and why?
VOICES is unique in that our programs are truly youth-led and focus on providing real and genuine opportunities for young people to emerge as strong leaders. VOICES acts as a training ground for real life, and thus many mistakes are made and disappointments are realized. True flexibility is an absolute must in our agency. We are fortunate to be funded by entities that understand the challenges of youth leadership and are willing to act in partnership with us as we continuously explore new strategies, work to improve our services, and, more often than not, lose their phone messages.
Your team has been instrumental in new California legislation surrounding foster care. Can you give a brief sketch of this work?
Within the last three years, new California legislation extended the age of foster care from 18 to 21. The goal of this legislation, and similar legislation across the country, was to allow for extended services and additional time for positive development for youth before leaving the system. Unfortunately, we are not seeing the outcomes of foster youth significantly improve.
Sonoma County is dedicated to ensuring the best support for our youth is in place. To this end, VOICES and Sonoma County Child Welfare have entered into a strong partnership aimed at creating and implementing local strategies to improve the outcomes of youth enrolled in the AB12 Project.
VOICES has convened a cohort of six young, motivated individuals using their voices and personal experiences to create legislative reform, public awareness, and mentorship for all foster youth. These youth have spent the last year becoming experts in subject matter related to AB12 services and implementation. They have met with national leaders, statewide policy makers, and a large variety of local experts to help them develop concrete recommendations that will be presented to Sonoma County leadership in November 2015.
Once support and commitment are garnered within this group, implementation of these strategies will begin in 2016. We are very excited about this project; not only is it truly a youth-led process, but the recommendations are coming from the youth themselves, and we believe that these youth are best qualified to identify gaps in the system and recommend strategies to overcome these challenges.
If you had your druthers, in five years, VOICES would . . .
. . . No longer be a necessary part of our community. If, after five years, we had been successful in advocating and implementing systemic change and strengthening the child welfare system—all while ensuring that Sonoma County truly values and seeks out the youth voice in policy decisions—and every youth leaving the foster system, with no exception, believed that they are capable, lovable, and worthy. Then our work would be done and we would celebrate. Unfortunately this does not seem a likely scenario, as VOICES provided love and support to over 950 Sonoma County youth last year. Instead, I will be happy if, in five years, VOICES is still being led by capable, passionate, young people and still providing quality services and support to the hundreds of youth who live within the child welfare system.