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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Cross-country hiker raises awareness for foster youth
by Matt Simonette
2016-04-20

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Jarett Wilkins, on April 15, arrived at the Santa Monica Pier. He had made it halfway through a 6,000-mile trek across the United States and back.

Wilkins, who is gay, undertook the hike to raise awareness about children who are in the foster care system. He started a non-profit organization, the Forever Family Walk, and is interviewing stakeholders in children's organizations and state agencies, among others, along the way.

"It started because I kept realizing that the at-risk children only got attention whenever they were in the newspaper," Wilkins said during a recent visit to Chicago. "I would read these articles and see how they were watched and cared for when they got into the system. … It seemed that a [Child and Protective Services] worker was visiting them only when they got maimed, ended up in the hospital or were dying."

The first leg, which Wilkins kicked off in August 2015, took him from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Santa Monica, California. The second leg will extend from San Diego back to New York City. The mileage is cumulative—he's had to interrupt the hike with trips for speaking engagements and personal business. His stopping points have been determined simply by where he could find people willing to talk. He hiked through Illinois in October, then returned to Chicago in March in order to help out a friend.

Wilkins, who lives in New York, previously worked in e-commerce and fashion, so he knew how to use the internet and mobile-marketing to build followers for a project. He was first inspired by an acquaintance who was walking across the country in anticipation of climbing Mount Everest.

"I researched people who had walked across the country before," he said. "One kid was 12 when he did it in 2009, and used social media to talk about programs that helped homeless youth. So I kind of piggy-backed off his platform and decided that the best way for me to bring awareness to what I was finding out—that there was no clear line of regulations across the country for these youth—would be to contact organizations in every state that had successful programs or a relevant voice."

Wilkins has been interviewing officials from the programs and highlighting his findings through various social media platforms. He keeps a handwritten notebook filled with his findings. "I'm a bad writer," he admitted, laughing. "But I'm a good interviewer, and I know how to pick the right people."

He carries all his belongings in his backpack, which weighs about 40 pounds and which he's nicknamed "Wilson," after Tom Hanks' volleyball in the film Castaway. Most nights he sleeps in a small tent, which he usually posts behind a large sign or someplace else where he can remain conspicuous. When the weather is really bad, he'll spring for a cheap motel.

Stories of LGBT youth and LGBT families are unsurprisingly common in Wilkins' interviews, he said. In the first interview he did, a Virginia official told him there was no data available on LGBT youth in that state's system. That omission had serious repercussions, since LGBT youths would sometimes be removed from or kicked out of a home by intolerant parents, then end up in a home with equally intolerant foster parents.

Wilkins' interview questions vary from state to state. Some states are harder on youths than others, he said.

"When I got to Kansas, it was pretty bad," he recalled. "Their [Department of Children and Family] was doing a witch hunt on the LGBT community. They had removed a two-month-old baby from a lesbian home and placed the child in the home of a [Topeka] city council member, who had 16 kids in the house who were biological, adopted and fostered. His wife was pregnant again at the time. They both were arrested and jailed for child abuse, so all those kids went back into foster care. That baby fortunately went back to the lesbian couple. It's a privatized state."

He's been transcribing his findings from the notebook along the way. "I want to get a data team on board, because I know a bunch of them from mobile-marketing, and then try to put these numbers together. …That's why it's so important to pick the right organizations to talk to. I've been able to connect directors of programs with each other, just by the interviews and hearing them talk. That's one good thing that's going to be able to come out of this."

When the second leg of his journey is completed, Wilkins said, he wants to keep going, perhaps through northern states he has missed.

"I'm not going to lie, I'd like to keep traveling," he added. "I'd like to keep going around and visiting these places, and try to figure out a place that would allow me to keep doing it."

Wilkins' fundraising site is at www.gofundme.com/x3a2kc3k .


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