Think Out Loud

Ascending Flow helps young people aging out of foster care find creative outlets

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Jan. 11, 2023 11:39 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Jan. 12

A man in a yellow shirt and hat holding a microphone.

In this provided photo, Ascending Flow participant Brayden Boyce speaks at a Portland block party hosted by the organization in 2022. Ascending Flow helps young adults like Boyce who are aging out of Oregon's foster care system find creative outlets to express themselves.

Talilo Marfil

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At some point, most adolescents transition into adulthood by moving out on their own, finding a job or going to college. But for young adults aging out of the state’s foster care system, those milestones can be particularly difficult to navigate.

Portland nonprofit New Narrative helps young adults exiting the foster system find housing and mental health services through its Compass Rose program. But it also provides unique peer mentorship in the form of Ascending Flow. The program connects participants to mentors with similar lived experiences and helps them find creative outlets to express themselves. Those outlets can be anything from music to video production to cooking.

Julie Ibrahim is New Narrative’s CEO; Talilo Marfil is the Ascending Flow program manager; and Brayden Boyce is a participant in the program. They join us to talk about the importance of the arts in fostering independence and mental wellness.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. At some point, most adolescents transition into adulthood by moving out on their own, going to college or finding a job. But for young adults aging out of the state’s foster care system, these milestones can be particularly difficult to navigate. For the last three years or so, the Portland nonprofit New Narrative has been helping to smooth this transition for young people who are exiting the foster system. They started by providing housing and mental health services. They have since added peer mentorship with an arts focus. That program is called Ascending Flow and we’re going to hear more about it right now.

Talilo Marfil is the Ascending Flow Program Manager, Julie Ibrahim is a New Narrative CEO and Brayden Boyce is a participant in this program. It’s great to have all three of you in the studio with me. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Brayden Boyce: Thank you.

Talilo Marfil: Thank you for having us.

Julie Ibrahim: Thanks for having us.

Miller: Julie Ibrahim first, I gave a very short version of this, but what are the challenges, in general, that young adults coming out of the foster care system might face?

Ibrahim: Well, there are about 5,400 kids in the foster care system right now, about 30% of those kids are the older part of that population: 13-21. At age 21, they’re done, if they’re not adopted or if they’re not taken back into their parents’ home. And so what happens is they’re faced with homelessness. Over 70% end up being arrested by the time they’re 26, 7 out of 10 of the women get pregnant by the time they’re 21, they have no preparation for adulthood.

Miller: Gosh, it sounds like such an indictment of the system, the stats that you’re describing right now, either the system leading up to that time or the lack of the system after that time.

Ibrahim: I think it’s the lack of a system to help them transition [into] adulthood. I mean, that’s difficult in the best of situations. I remember when I was that age, it was a hard transition and I had a fairly stable childhood. So, I think it’s the lack of transition services. And so our program aims to mitigate for these trends by helping these young adults to successfully transition into adulthood, providing stable housing, first and foremost, because the first problem is they’re homeless when they age out. And that’s when DHS Child Welfare approached us, that’s why they approached us. They said, we’ve got too many kids aging out and they’re on the streets, so we need some housing and we have a big housing program. They turned to us and I said, “Well, let’s do one better, let’s build a whole program, wraparound program to help them transition successfully into adulthood.” So we started with mental health services, skills training, we had peer support specialists on staff and of course stable housing, where we guarantee that they will have a successful rental history to take with them when they graduate from the program.

Miller: How do you guarantee a successful rental history?

Ibrahim: We have an in-house property management group. So they work very closely with the clinical team, with the program team, to help the young adults understand what their lease is all about because they get a regular lease, just like anybody else would get in an apartment. And they help the youth to understand what it is to maintain that lease and to maintain a successful household. Now sometimes they struggle with it, and because we have an in-house property management group, we help give them first, second and third chances. And we know, because they are an at-risk population, we are going to give them a special kind of dispensation, if you will, and still allow them to have a successful rental history when they leave.

Miller: That seems like such a clear example of the tightrope you’re walking here, because on the one hand, I imagine that you want to give these young people the freedom to live their own lives. Maybe if that could mean the freedom to make their own mistakes, but with some version of guardrails so that they can keep going in the right direction. How do you think about that balancing act?

Ibrahim: And that has been a challenge for the program, both for the staff and for frankly DHS Child Welfare, particularly the case managers who are very used to absolutely protecting and bubble wrapping those youth.

Miller: Protecting, that’s one way to put it, but also just saying, holding people to specific rules.

Ibrahim: Right.

Miller: That 20 year olds may not want to have to deal with anymore.

Ibrahim: Exactly. So one of the reasons why I think our program is popular is because we try to give as much freedom as we possibly can and yet still hold some protections and some guardrails to help them move through that transition period. Because many of the youth that we get have, they bombed out of many programs and placements, frankly quite a few. And so we try to give them freedoms, like for example, no curfews or second and third chances, where typically they may not get that in another program or certainly not in a regular apartment building.

Miller: Brayden Boyce, I want to turn to you now as a participant in this program. Can you give us a sense for what was going on in your life before you joined Compass Rose, which is the overarching program we’re talking about here?

Boyce: Yeah, so a big piece of my life really was just a lot of back and forth, as she talks about, the placements and a lot of disserviced youth. It’s really a struggle to be able to be my own person and feel confident about it, have the independence that I was wanting, but lacked the resources or thereof.

Miller: How many homes did you live in over the last 15 years?

Boyce: Overall, I lived in 17 different programs and BRS placements, used for medical facilities as well as just trying to maintain housing. Again, just a really huge struggle just for these people to be able to have these resources and then be able to have an outcome that would really turn out for them. And back to your question, having been in Compass Rose and being able to have that opportunity, it gives me that chance to have independence, but also it gives me a chance to be myself and be able to have a full time job, be able to support the people around me as well as support myself and feel becoming about it. And it just creates a whole new slate for me that gives me the opportunity to be a whole person.

Miller: Julie Ibrahim, she just outlined some of those numbers about the likelihood of people leaving foster care, becoming incarcerated or being homeless. Where were you headed before Compass Rose?

Boyce: I was on the verge of houselessness. I struggled to make income because of stability. I had recently had a lot of history with trauma and so that really made it really hard for me to be able to focus and maintain just what I wanted. And Compass Rose gave light to that, by giving me a place to stay, but also giving me the opportunity to be a full grown adult in which I had all the capabilities of, just not the substantial support that I really needed to be able to have that.

Miller: After 17 different homes or programs, what reason did you have to trust the people behind this one?

Boyce: Really the reason I had to trust these people is because I saw the people, the mentors, and of course to Talilo, the person next to us, and the people who really want to try and activate something for me. But I had not given up, I had trusted in just myself and been, like by my lack of their better judgment, just gave me an opportunity to be like, ‘what, if all else fails, I really tried hard’ and at the end of the day, I look at myself and I’m like, ‘I really did it.’ But you can’t give a chance if it’s not given, so it’s kind of like, that’s what it is.

Miller: Talilo Marfil, as I noted, is with us, and you just reintroduced him, which I appreciate. The co-founder of a piece of the program that we’re talking about, the piece that you co-founded is called Ascending Flow. How did it start?

Marfil: Ascending Flow started in 2017 in Southern Oregon. We primarily focused on mentoring youth in the city that were falling through the cracks, weren’t getting engaged with, primarily like native, brown, marginalized communities pretty much and just focused on mentoring youth 8 to 16, mainly.

Miller: And you chose as part of the mentorship to focus on creative expression, music or art. Why?

Marfil: Creative, for myself, I grew up in Portland as a houseless youth, went through many programs, been to prison, in and out of jail. I’ve had the first hand experience of falling through the cracks and programs and seeing where music and arts weren’t prioritized. And in a city that boasts arts and, and music, I felt like it was really important to show how important expression is in terms of mental wellness and how it connects to that and how it can help an individual grow, heal and focus on the things they need to in order to succeed in life.

Miller: What did music mean to you?

Marfil: It saved my life. I remember when I was downtown Portland, I would have a sign asking for money and people would pass me all the time and when I started rapping downtown, that’s when people started paying attention. I used to go to the GarageBand at Pioneer Square and make beats. I smelled funny. They knew I was homeless. They let me on their computers, and it gave me a sense of expression that I needed, when I felt like no one was listening to me and no one paid attention to me. My self worth was really low.

Miller: Let’s listen to part of a song by an Ascending Flow alum who performs under the name Nay Nay. Her song is called “Lessons.”

[Music begins]

The seasons changing

It’s getting even colder

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

All this pain got me feeling like a soldier now

The ground breaks and I’m falling through the cracks now

The ground shakes and then I start to break down

I don’t know if I’m gonna make it out

But I know

That even in the sadness I grow

Because I know

That everything’s a lesson

That every pain’s a blessin’

Everything’s a lesson

Cause even when it hurts

And I can’t find the words

Everything’s a lesson

[Music fades out]

Miller: Talilo, when a young person enters the program for the first time, when you meet a young person, how do you start?

Marfil: The first thing is building that rapport with them, being vulnerable, being authentic, letting them know that you have scars and pain too, and you’re not alone in that. And that’s primarily like the main focus in our program is that connection. Without it, you don’t get the truth. You don’t get, you don’t create a safe space and it takes brave people to do that, to be vulnerable enough to share their life with them.

Miller: Great people, on the part of peer support specialists or the people who are..

Marfil: Both. Both sides.

Miller: It goes both ways.

Marfil: It goes both ways, but it takes one person to do it. And that’s why peer support is so important because you look at a group of young people that have been abused and have a lot of trauma and then you take someone who’s gotten through that trauma, and they come in and they share that and how they’ve coped with it. It’s just a little different when you can relate.

Miller: Brayden, does that ring true for you? I mean, how did you decide that the people who are working with this program were people that you could work with?

Boyce: I think what speaks true to Talilo, like what he says, it hits true to home with me because really, I’ve given so many people chances. But the program, like it gave me a chance that I could be open, I could be vulnerable, I could have an opportunity to really thrive and engage, but also support those people around me because that’s always been true to home for me. And it gives you an outlet and really like that expression is really what’s needed, those opportunities are really what’s needed. It gave me so much that I could just trust somebody, but also just opening up and feeling comfortable. That’s really what we need.

Miller: What have you done creatively in this program?

Boyce: Creatively in this program. I’ve worked with a lot of youth, I mostly focus on outreach with people. But with Talilo, I’ve made music, I’ve been able to run and help set up events and just being able to like make some music with Evan, who is another flow operator, a really cool dude. But I’ve been able to make beats and just express myself freely and really just have the opportunity to be me. That’s never been an opportunity that I’ve been given, and self worth was just a piece that I wasn’t able to really click into the puzzle. So it gave me a really big opportunity to feel.

Marfil: In a lot of programs, you see a lot of containment, a lot of medicine handed out and just people analyzing you. I think, in our program, what makes it really special is that you have space to explore and discover and kinda like figure out, reflect on your story and what’s happened to you. For a long time, I feel like bouncing from placement to placement, not having stability. It’s hard to even reflect, you’re always like this, you always got two hands up. And that could do some damage on the psyche that could really impact someone’s development.

Ibrahim: The whole program is highly individualized and I think that’s part of the success of the retention and why we often have a waiting list for it, because the word has gotten around about the program. Most of our services are that way, but this program, in particular, is very much tailored to the individual that comes into the program and trying to meet them exactly where they’re at. Exactly where they’re at.

Marfil: It’s all the names too. Like you got a New Narrative, creating a new story. You gotta Ascending Flow, ascending the potential of youth, one flow at a time. So it really focuses on the individual. And you’ve got  Compass Rose, where they follow their own direction. They kind of have a say in where they’re going and we just support that.

Miller: Julie, Talilo mentioned that Ascending Flow, this mentorship program that he started, that he helped to co-found, was in Southern Oregon. Why did you want to bring this to Portland? Why fold it into what you were working on?

Ibrahim: We had done a pilot for a year with this program and the pilot was reasonably successful and so DHS Child Welfare gave us another contract and gave us more slots. We got 20 more slots. But I knew that something was missing in the program. I knew that it needed an additional mentor element, not only for all the reasons that Bradon and and Talilo have talked about, but I thought it also needed an element of fun and community to really attract youth. Because many of the youth coming in are very treatment weary, very institutional weary, I thought it needed a lightness. So I was mentioning this to a friend of mine, a mutual friend between Talilo and I, and she said, “I know just the guy to help you out.” And she arranged a coffee between Talilo and I. After I met Talilo, felt his passion and his authenticity and heard about his program in Southern Oregon, I thought this is the guy, this is the program. It was almost immediate, right Talilo? I immediately brought him into the program.

Miller: It’s interesting. I mean, we started by talking about incarceration, homelessness, and potentially unwanted pregnancies. It took us almost 20 minutes to get to the word “fun.” What role, Brayden, does fun and lightness play for you in this program?

Boyce: Oh, I can’t even begin to start it, man, because really coming from the background of hearing all that and seeing how much is in the face of adversity, in front of me even, and having all these people, like really struggle. Then having an opportunity to be able to have fun, like that’s unheard of. And this program, for me, gives me the opportunity to open up, express my feelings, but also I don’t have to worry and not having to worry and being able to feel my emotions freely, I’ve never had something like that and it’s amazing.

Miller: Talilo, what’s your definition of victory? I mean, what are you going for? Because you’ve talked about relationships, but my understanding is that even [with] a program like this, there’s an end date for a young person’s participation. At some point, they’re going to leave this program. What do you want them to leave with?

Marfil: Independency, pride and self worth, clarity on their passion. Something that they can take with them even after this, because we can’t ensure that after this program, life isn’t going to hit them hard. But just that reminder that they’re resilient and they can tap into those coping skills when things happen, they know their resources. I think that’s a big thing that we see with transitional aged youth, is that that knowledge, not knowing your resources, not knowing your own strength, not believing in that, could be the reason why you end up in prison. It could be the reason why you start hurting yourself more, why you get lost in drugs and all the things that could potentially derail that course.

Ibrahim: And there’s some real practical things we’re doing in the program to help folks avoid being undereducated and underemployed. We’re helping people finish their education, sometimes their high school education, getting them into PCC, into college, helping them get jobs, teaching them how to interview, how to do a resume. That’s part of the program as well.

Miller: Brayden, what are your hopes for your future right now?

Boyce: Well, I have a long line of people and a long line of support to now support me. I have a full time job. I’m able to pay for my food, be able to live on my own and be happy about it. And back to your question, I just have a long line of things and I’m just able to express it and I’m just happy. I can’t wait for it. I’m really excited for the people to see this and I’m really excited for this to go out to the community. So now all these other people can have an opportunity that I have and I’m so grateful for. I’m blessed.

Miller: Brayden, Talilo and Julie, thanks very much.

Boyce: Yeah, thank you.

Marfil: Thank you so much.

Ibrahim: Thank you for having us.

Miller: Brayden Boyce is a participant in the Ascending Flow program, part of Compass Rose, part of the nonprofit, New Narrative. Julie Ibrahim is the CEO of New Narrative. Talilo Marfil is program manager and co-founder of Ascending Flow.

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