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From Country Music to Media: Young Superstars Give Foster Youth Power

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Olympian Wilma Rudolph, who overcame physical disabilities, gender bias and segregation to win three gold medals, once said: "Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us."

This tenet shapes my life and my work because it speaks to our society's ability to better itself. Over the years, I met those who have found that "greatness" within and used it to change lives, including country music sensation Jimmy Wayne and award-winning journalist Daniel Heimpel. These exceptional young men are using their gifts and talents to give a voice to foster youth.

Currently, our nation has 423,000 million foster children eagerly waiting to be reunited with their parents, placed with relative caregivers or adopted into a permanent home with a forever family. Originally envisioned as a temporary refuge to protect children, the foster care system for many children means multiple placements, frequent school transfers, broken family relationships, educational deficits and other hindrances that make transition to adulthood difficult.

For many youth, it's a future of unhappy endings. Approximately 26,000 adolescents "age-out" of the system every year -- meaning they never get reunited or adopted. Upon exiting the system, they are confronted with the harsh realities of life on their own, without the provisions that most adolescents on the road to adulthood take for granted -- family support, personal connections, and access to resources such as higher education, vocational training, medical care, housing, and nurturing adult relationships within their communities. The results are costly, giving rise to a population of young people with higher than average rates of homelessness, criminality, incarceration, substance abuse, unemployment and dependence on welfare.

Recognizing these issues, many celebrities who spent time in foster care are using the power of their fame to increase awareness and focus our nation's attention on the urgent needs of foster children. One of these is country music sensation Jimmy Wayne, a former foster child who experienced homelessness as a teenager. To raise awareness and support for teens that are "aging out," he embarked on a rugged road trip on foot for his "Meet Me Halfway Campaign." On January 1, Wayne set out on a solo walk from Nashville, Tennessee to Phoenix, Arizona. He completed the seven month trek of nearly 1,700 miles on July 31. He is also co-writing his first novella based on his foster care experiences in North Carolina. The short story: "Paper Angels," which is named after one of his songs, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2011.

Then there are those relative unknowns who have become strong advocates by association like Daniel Heimpel, a young newspaper reporter who covered foster care issues and mentored two teen boys in the system. Deeply moved by these experiences, he quit his job so that he could dedicate his energies and journalistic expertise to attracting the media's attention to the plight of our nation's foster children. With support from the Stuart Foundation, he launched Fostering Media Connections, a project of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute that aims to accelerate state-by-state implementation of the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act -- the most significant child welfare policy legislation in more than a decade.

Through the Fostering Media Connections Project, the journalist turned activist is on a mission to get media outlets across the country to care about fixing foster care as much as he does. He travels the country to meet with frontline news decision-makers and reporters to convince them to feature stories that will build political and public will to transform child welfare policy and practice.

As Jimmy and Daniel dedicate their efforts to the cause, they are joined by a growing chorus of young superstars. Armed with their hard-won expertise, an increasing number of former foster youth are also lending their "voices of experience," advocating for the thousands of foster children who cannot speak for themselves. Despite their personal trauma and tragedies, these former foster youth are rising up and sharing their stories with leaders and the public on the national and local levels in an effort to improve America's child welfare system.

Jimmy Wayne, Daniel Heimpel and the scores of former foster youth show that human spirit and dreams can make a difference. Each reflects what one passionate person with a purpose can achieve, and they remind us that greatness lies within everyone. Working together, we can help more youth triumph over adversity and discover their true potential.