Changemakers Series No. 1: Former youth in care who are changing the world — and the child welfare system — for the better

Meet Anayah Phares, founder of Creating Hope and Ensuring Excellent Roads to Success (CHEERS), an organization helping youth to transition out of care.

Anayah 4

Changemaker

My name is Anayah Phares (formerly known as Rosimay Venancio), founder of CHEERS — Creating Hope and Ensuring Excellent Roads to Success.

Where

Toronto

The biggest challenge I have faced

When I transitioned out of care at the age of 17. Oh man, I was lost, I was so lost. All I had ever wanted was stability.

Growing up, every year had been chaos. I attended ten schools in three years and then my mom returned to Angola and she left me with a family in the Angolan community that offered to sponsor me in return for looking after their home and baby. I was 13 years old. I started missing school a lot because they didn’t want to give me bus fare to go to school and they had a six-month-old baby, and somebody had to stay with the baby while the mother worked. Nobody knew that I was missing all this school, that I was crying in the principal’s office because I was so hungry and my stomach was hurting. Nobody knew that I had outgrown my winter jacket and my pants and my boots. Nobody knew that I didn’t have anybody to help me to take care of my hair.

I was close to my guidance counsellor at school, and so I asked her how I could apply for welfare. That rang a bell in her head.  She phoned Children’s Aid and the intake worker said, “You have two more years until you can apply for welfare or we can give you a place to live.” I thought, “Anywhere is better than where I am right now,” and so I told her “Yes, I’ll go.” I came into care and started living with my foster family when I was 15. I found the first stability I had ever experienced. And then all of a sudden it was taken away from me again when I turned 17 and the supports ended. I was in denial, then I was lost, then depressed, then ‘Now what?’ It was ‘Now what?’ for a very long time.

How I experienced change in Ontario’s child welfare system

I ended up in a foster home where I found love and care and warmth and stability. It felt so good to be able to know that at the end of the day you could come home and your foster mom is going to go out and buy you tofu because you have decided to become a vegetarian for two days. You can be your crazy self, you can let your guard down, develop your true personality. That’s what happened to me, I didn’t have my true personality until I went into care. I came into care and my grades skyrocketed. I even got a perfect attendance award.

My personal transformation moment

When my first boss, who was this amazing woman living the happily-ever-after-dream who I always looked up to, told me that she had foster parents. I looked at her and I thought, “What do you mean foster parents? You’re perfect. Nobody perfect comes from foster parents.” She changed my thinking that people like me don’t get to places like her.

What I hope to change

Being exposed to someone who has walked a mile in my shoes and experienced the same challenges that I did yet managed to overcome caused me to raise the expectations I had for myself. I experienced a mind shift around what was possible for me. I thought to myself, “What would happen if more youth in care were exposed to former youth in care who are success stories?” That is when I developed CHEERS (Creating Hope and Ensuring Excellent Roads to Success), which connects youth living in foster care with young adults who found success after living in the foster system. I have developed a prototype and have some matches going on right now.

The goal of CHEERS is to make sure youth are adequately equipped to have stable, independent lives that are sustainable. It will do this by offering two levels of mentorship: at the first level, youth transitioning out of care will be matched with mentors who will help them with everything involved with transitioning into independence, from finding a family doctor to understanding the landlord and tenant act. The next level of the mentorship program will connect youth to professional coaches who can mentor them as they establish careers and build networks and really just try to understand the world itself.

I feel like right now there is nothing out there for youth transitioning out of care, other than the experience of being referred somewhere that then refers you somewhere else. The youth who have transitioned successfully have either just been lucky or had a really great foster parent who let them move into the basement. I hope to change that.

UPDATE: Anayah is the recipient of a $600,000 grant that will help her to develop CHEERS. Read all about it here. To learn more, contact Anayah directly at anayah.phares@cheersprogram.com.

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