Beautiful, young, gracious, kind, and…southern…Nikki Vega is one of those rarer than rubies kind of ladies that has the unique ability to disarm you with her kindness, to draw you in with her welcoming demeanor and sweet tea. A lady of craft, with a love for finding vintage furniture and creating something beautiful, her smile tells you life is peachy. Once you’re welcomed at her table for conversation, however, and you’ll meet a woman of grit and grandeur-a woman unafraid to get her hands dirty for good cause. This southern belle is more than a pretty face-she is a bold woman, unwilling to sit back silently and let vulnerable people of any sort be stepped on by injustice. I asked Nikki to share her family’s story and unique experience of working for Teen Leadership Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering foster youth that has aged out of the foster-care system, to show us that anyone can “…be the change [they] wish to see in the world” (Ghandi).
Tell me a little about TLF-what is it exactly? What do they do? What is TLF’s story…
TLF is a non profit that empowers foster teens and emancipated foster youth by giving them tools to become leaders through its programs: Mentoring, Leadership Camps, Youth Groups, Education Workshops and housing (The Launch Pad). TLF wraps around foster teens currently in the system through camps (once a year), mentoring (life-long), and youth groups and education workshops (once a month). TLF’s housing complex, The Launch Pad, is its logical next step in self-sufficiency for youth that have emancipated out of foster care.
TLF was founded by Lisa Castetter in 2007, whose first involvement with foster youth was as a summer camp volunteer a few years prior. Over time, she saw the overwhelmingly positive impact camp had on the teens, particularly the camp counselors’ one-on-one attention and the confidence-building leadership activities. Committed to reaching more foster teens with this often life-changing camp experience, Lisa left her career as an apparel industry executive to launch the Teen Leadership Foundation.
How did you get involved with TLF and foster youth?
My Husband and I first got involved with TLF about two and a half years ago. We heard about the organization through our pastor who had just spoke at a summer camp for the foster teens. We met with Lisa, who walked us through the challenges and struggles of individuals who are in the system or have previously been in the system (now emancipated). We knew God was calling us to walk through life with this population of youth. We had been praying for an opportunity to do something purposeful together. We immediately got involved, went to a summer camp, started mentoring, and now have been living as the Care Coordinators at the Launch Pad, the independent living apartment, for almost a year.
What’s it like to do this kind of work alongside your husband, AND NOW with a newborn?
Having the opportunity to work alongside my husband with this organization is such a blessing. We consider all the residents our family and have loved living life alongside them. Arthur and I have grown SO much while doing this ministry due to God empowering, stretching, and allowing us to do this special work. All the glory to Him. Having our family expand has been such a blessing but also challenging. Many of our residents have not been able to experience a healthy family unit, so it has been amazing to be an example for them as a married couple and, now, as parents. It has also been challenging for a lot of our residents because once we had Isaiah (our nine week old son); they expected us to forget/abandon them. This challenge has been a blessing more then anything because we have been able to stay alongside our residents and continue to show them love and consistency. Showing them love regardless of our situation (having a baby) and regardless of their (past, current, or future) situation. They have slowly learned how to trust that we are not going anywhere!
What does your day to day look like at the Launch Pad?
As the Care Coordinators Arthur (my husband) and I are here to facilitate intentional relationships with all of the residents. This is our top priority for us, as a couple, and TLF, as an organization. We typically we do a community group (usually Bible study) once a week with the residents, have regular hang out nights that include movies or board games, and do a weekly work-out. We are here to tend to any on-campus emergencies that need immediate attention. Each day looks different at the Launch Pad but at the end of the day we are here to walk out life with each individual and build trusting and lasting relationships with them.
What are the joys of doing this kind of work?
Honestly, these residents bless us more then we bless them. Being around each individual has given us different kinds of joy. Whether it be one of my residents knocking on the door in the middle of the night because they are scared, breaking down because they finally have a stable, consistent living environment, or coming to us in pure excitement because a volunteer brought decorations over for Christmas (one of my girls had never had a Christmas tree)…all of our joy comes from seeing every resident being/feeling loved. Watching them soak up being invested into is our biggest joy. Loving them is our biggest joy. The privilege of being allowed into their world and story is our biggest joy.
And the challenges?
There are always challenges! Working with foster youth is not always pretty. It’s hard. Really hard. This ministry is not rainbows and butterflies…it’s messy and challenging. Any child that has experienced being an orphan (or fostercare) carries a unique story and unique pains that go along with that. When they come to the Launch Pad, they bring those memories with them. In the beginning, it’s hard to break protective barriers and coping strategies. There has to be a HUGE foundation built before trust can be established. This takes a lot of time and effort—and consistency. These are people you were never given the chance to understand how to receive love. It’s our (mine and my husband’s) job to teach them. It’s hard getting attached to some of them knowing they could leave any day, give up, and choose a different path. This is why we have to remember that, this job is not about us…it’s about empowering those entrusted to us. There is a lot of joy, but there are also a lot of tears in this field of work.
What keeps you motivated to keep going?
God. All the glory to Him. He is the reason we are here, and able to love each of these kids. Also- the team we work with: Lisa Castetter (Founder) her heart and passion for foster youth overflows out of her; she has shown what true surrender looks like by putting all of her talents and time to work to pave a new path for these youth. Our Director of Programs, Tina, is SO much fun to work with. Her heart for the youth is contagious. And our Campus Coordinator, Jessica Huysman is our right hand woman! She is here on campus with us almost everyday, walking through life with each residents in such a beautiful way. Her authenticity and humility is a joy to experience and work with!
What are your dreams for TLF?
My dream is that we can impact as many foster youth on a deep, intentional, level possible. We are in process of looking to expand to a 30-40 unit apartment complex to meet the dire need of housing for emancipated youth. We turn down 3-4 calls a week as we are out of room. Our dream is that we will be provided the funds and other tools needed to make this happen.
Watching them soak up being invested into is our biggest joy. Loving them is our biggest joy. The privilege of being allowed into their world and story is our biggest joy.How would you encourage someone to step into something they’re passionate about?
How did you discover this was “it” for you and Arthur? That THIS was where you were supposed to be…
God showed us very early on that we are meant to work alongside the vulnerable. We knew that was our passion: to be with those who have never experienced love in a healthy way. We began praying for God to show us what this looked like, where/who this would be with…About a month later our pastor invited my husband to a small group (we were brand new to the church) and from there introduced us to Lisa. We knew after hearing the vision of TLF we wanted to be a part of this team.
How might someone get connected to TLF? How can we help?
Gift cards are ALWAYS great—they help provide things like food, toiletries, and gas for our residents. We love having fun, social events for them, as well—going to the beach, Angel’s games, movies…we always could use assistance in this area, as well.
Take a step out in faith. Be willing to put yourself on the line to make a difference and possibly impact the course of someone else’s life.
Want to learn more? Lisa, the founder of Teen Leadership Foundation, will be joining us at our next Bloom Gathering (_next Thursday, July 23, at Share and Do Good) _to tell us about TLF and to give us proactive advice on being the change we wish to see happen. Click here for more info and to purchase tickets.