Since Thursday afternoon, about 100 teenagers have been staying at Lincoln University, learning basic life skills and ways to advocate for themselves — and to connect with their peers.
The teens are part of the Central Missouri Foster Care & Adoption Association's "Operation Brace Youth Retreat."
"We do some activities that help to teach life skills, such as basic home repairs and financial aid," DeAnna Alonso, the CMFCAA's president and CEO, said Saturday afternoon. "We have done some sessions on how to raise your voice, how to advocate (with government) on 'The Hill.'
"We talk about how we can move ourselves from a place where the world doesn't have anything for us, to a place where we can help to change the world."
The teens attending the retreat, which ends this afternoon, come from a variety of backgrounds, Alonso said: "Kids from foster care, adoption and kinship care are here.
"Kids who may be in residential treatment or may be in long-term foster care, may not have the same opportunity to learn basic life-skills, money management and those types of things, if they're not with a mom and dad."
Children can get into "the system" for a variety of reasons, including parents who have been abusive or whose drug use has made them unfit to be an active parent.
Christine Guillotte, 21, of Springfield, was in the foster care system twice in her life.
"My mother was abusive and she was on drugs," Guillotte explained. "We moved to Missouri, and within about a month, we were taken into care and were in care for about three years."
The same thing happened when the family returned to Louisiana, she said.
Alonso invited Guillotte to speak at the retreat about her experiences.
Guillotte's goal is to help the teens "speak for themselves, tell their story and use their own voice. If you don't speak for yourself, nobody else is going to."
When she was in the system, Guillotte said, "I never felt that I was listened to (by my caseworkers), and when you're young, they don't listen to you."
Part of her presentation involved a skill called "strategic sharing."
"Something that's big with strategic sharing is learning what to share, the important parts of sharing — and how to protect yourself while you're sharing," Guillotte said. "The biggest thing about advocating is to make a change, so that we can change (the system) for the next generation that's coming (and) fix the system so we can break the cycle that we have going on."
Each child or teen has to learn what parts of their story they want to share because everybody's story is different, she acknowledged.
During the weekend, she said, one younger boy said he was attending the retreat "for a different reason than everybody else, so he doesn't need to speak," Guillotte said. "And I said, that's the exact reason why you should speak — because you're going through something that you think not everybody else is."
Sharing stories can lead to finding out you're not alone, she explained.
The agency's website, ccfosteradopt.com/meet-the-team, says Alonso founded the CMFCAA in October 2008, along with two adoptive parents and one foster parent, and her "passion is derived from having been raised in the foster care system, aging out of the system at 18 years old, only to become homeless after emancipation."
Alonso told the News Tribune: "Every youth deserves a connection.
"Science proves that, if you have one positive person in your life, the trajectory of your life changes immensely."
Jason Evers is the agency's extreme recruitment investigator.
"I'm more of a family finder (for) kids who have been in the foster care system for awhile," he said.
"Our first goal is, if there is somebody else in the family that is appropriate (so that) we can connect them back into the family again, that's the preference."
Evers also has a law enforcement background, including eight years working in Cole County. He currently works as a part-time, reserve officer for the Eldon and Versailles police departments.
Guillotte said youth in foster care face a stigma from society, where many people think that taking children away from a situation "is always the correct answer, that 'you're obviously in foster care because that's where you need to be.' But that's not always the case."
Others think children are in foster care because they did something wrong.
"It's not the child's fault," she said. "We're not responsible for being put in the positions that we're put in as children — because that's the adults' responsibility.
Eric Gray, of Jefferson City, is a foster-adoptive parent.
"We've got nine children that we adopted out of the foster care system," he explained.
He hopes the students learn "that there are people out there who care, who are here to help them."
Some children in foster care are resentful of the situation they're in, and can take that feeling out on the foster or adoptive parents, he said.
Gray encouraged people to become mentors, to help youth in foster care understand "there are people outside of the family that help them grow into adults."
And he wants adults to realize children in the system "are not all bad — they just need guidance."
Foster care is different for each person, Guillotte said.
"My experience was, relatively, a pretty positive one," she explained. "I was only in two separate homes, and I got adopted — and I know that's not everybody's story."
Most of the students attending the retreat came from the 13 counties the CMFCAA serves, Alonso said, although there were some from throughout the state.
It's a leadership opportunity for them, she said.
Alonso said another thing that drives her work is the thought: "The worst poverty ever is to not have family.
"Our kids have this great loss, this great grief that they want to have family, or they want to go back to their family, to work with their family and try to get back into that home environment.
"And if that's not the case, they're looking for a permanent home — and that means adoption."