Good People for the Resistance is a twice-monthly interview with people who give me hope during these dark times. Today, meet Colby Swettberg, CEO of Silver Lining Mentoring (SLM), an organization that brings stability, love, and a sense of belonging to young people in foster care. This fall, Colby will be taking Silver Lining’s award-winning mentoring model nationwide, teaching other organizations to do what SLM does so well. Talking to Colby was a hopeful diversion to the news coming from the detention centers at the border. The Good News …
Children are resilient. And despite all the Bad News perpetrated by the Trump Administration, there is no dearth of caring adults like Colby, Silver Lining’s staff and volunteer mentors, ready to help young people thrive.
Q: How do children wind up in foster care?
Each child has endured abuse or neglect so severe that someone called the Department of Children & Family Services (DCF), who then decided the child was not safe in their family of origin. Then, often with no warning at all –in school, or in the middle of night, there’s a knock on the door, the police and a social worker show up, give the child a black trash bag and tell them to put their things in it; these strangers take them away from their family, and drop them off someplace else with other strangers. In that moment there is enormous loss, fear, and anxiety. The child has absolutely no control, no choice, and no voice about what is happening.
Q: Where does Silver Lining Mentoring come in?
What people don’t get about foster care is that on top of the trauma of enduring abuse and neglect, the trauma of constantly being removed is additional injury. Children in foster care are often moved multiple times within a single year; each time they’re moved they’ll have different caregivers, different peers, a different school, a different community. Their relationships are uprooted over and over again. Knowing they’ll be bounced around, and that each new placement comes with a new cast of characters, they have little reason to trust people. They’re often hesitant to form new relationships because they think they’ll lose them. That’s where we come in. We focus on bringing relationship consistency by attending to the 3rd level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Sense of Belonging.
Q: How do you do this?
We put one volunteer mentor into the life of one young person. This mentor is often the only adult in the young person’s world who is not paid to be there. Our mentors are in it for the long-term; they follow the young person from placement to placement, wherever they go. We support the young person and the mentor in forming an authentic, trusting, long-term relationship. To have a sense of belonging.
Q: Who’s your hero, and why?
My grandmother. She was the kind of person who made everyone feel special. Everyone felt close to her and wanted to be in her orbit. She never went to college, but she was one of the wisest, smartest people I’ve known. She always found ways to be deeply connected to others. Her motto was “love is reflected in love.”
Q: You and your grandmother are the antithesis of Donald Trump. If he invited you to the White House would you go? If so, would you shake his hand?
Yes, I’d go. I would welcome the opportunity to queer up the White House and as I shook his tiny hand I’d whisper, “it’s contagious!”
Q: Tell me about one of the young people you’ve worked with.
Melanie, a mentor, was getting ready to interview for new job, and she wanted to bring her mentee Tara into the process, because she thought it would create teachable moments. She asked Tara to go shopping with her to help pick out an interview outfit, to teach her about professional behavior and dress. After the interview, Melanie told Tara that what she’d helped her with had worked — Melanie had gotten the new job. Tara looked crestfallen, and had tears in her eyes. Melanie said, “this is a good thing, why are you sad?” Tara said, “So I guess this is goodbye. You have a new job, so now you’ll have to leave.” Melanie told Tara it wouldn’t change a thing, that her new job had nothing to do with their mentoring relationship. But it took time for that to sink in. Young people in foster care just aren’t used to the idea that adults could be invested in them without it having anything to do with their job.
Q: You’ve won many awards and have gotten lots of recognition for doing what you do so well. What’s unique about your approach?
Youth voice and youth choice are at center of what we do. We put the young people we work with in the driver’s seat. They opt into Silver Lining’s programs – they tell us what they’re looking for in a mentor and what their goals are, instead of the other way around. Our programs are also unique because our mentorships have no expiration date – young people don’t age out of our programs at 18. We recognize that is often their time of greatest need for support.
Q: What phone app could you not live without?
Anylist. I live my life by lists. I have 6-7 going at all times.
Q: Who’s your 2020 presidential Dream Team?
Michelle Obama and Ayanna Pressley.