Art & Design

Foster Children Make 'Passion Art'

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Victoria Rowell at the NPR West studios in Culver City, Calif.

Victoria Rowell at the NPR West studios in Culver City, Calif. Devin Robins, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Devin Robins, NPR

Farai Chideya talks with actress Victoria Rowell about an art exhibit produced by children in foster care. The exhibit is called "The Passion Art Tour."

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

May is Foster Care Awareness Month. According to recent estimates, more than half-a-million children in the United States are in the foster care system.

The National Foster Parents Association says, every year about 20,000 young adults of all races age out of foster care, and many of these young people are thrust into the adult world in situations they aren't always ready to handle.

Actress Victoria Rowell is a former foster child and for years has advocated for the well being of foster children around the country. She shared her personal story with NPR's Farai Chideya, and how she's reaching out to kids in the system through the arts.

Ms. VICTORIA ROWELL (Actress, Foster Child Activist): I spent 18 years in the foster care system. I was a ward of the State of Maine. Because of my great desire to study classical ballet, my foster mother made it possible for me to cross state lines to Massachusetts to study with the Cambridge School of Ballet, and then to New York City to study with American Ballet Theater School, and then, ultimately, joined the junior company.

So I was vested in foster care because of my circumstance, but also because I had tremendous mentors raising me, and I never forgot those people. Oftentimes, you know, people will ask, do you know who your teachers were in schools, by virtue of the odyssey of foster care? And, many times, those teachers are faceless to me. But the mentors, I remember all of them.

As an homage to these foster women, I started the Rowell Foster Children's Positive Plan, now in its sweet 16 this year. And what we do is we provide fine arts scholarships to foster and adopted youth to study piano, dance, drama, reunification camps with siblings, and tuition for higher education.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Tell us about - every year you do a big event, and you just had the launch of an ongoing art tour in Los Angeles. What is this art exhibit all about?

Ms. ROWELL: The Museum of Contemporary Art allowed the Rowell Foster Children's Positive Plan to display, for one night, 31 pieces of original artwork designed by foster and adopted youth. And we ended up with 31 pieces of collage artwork. And we call it The Passion Art Tour, because the idea was for each child that has worked with RCPP over the past 16 years that wanted to participate, to bring their bag of passion, whether it was scholastic passion, whether it was musical passion, dance passion, if it was sports passion, whatever your experience has been over the years with RCPP.

CHIDEYA: What do you think would help the overall situation of foster care and foster children, in terms of creating a plan - a comprehensive plan to prioritize these children's needs?

Ms. ROWELL: Well, my hero, or heroine, is Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund and all that she has stood for. She coined that phrase first: leave no child behind. And I think if anyone can make a change happen and create a national model, it would be Marian Wright Edelman.

I think if we come together - we are closer now than ever before in putting together a national model to turn this around. The simple equation is this: We can have all the commissions and all the panels and all the legislation and all the bills passed that we want to, but to save the half-a-million-plus children in foster care, it's going to require hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart mentoring. It's the only way.

You cannot warehouse a child in a group home and show up every Christmas with a present and a turkey at Thanksgiving and think you've done your job. You have not. We really have to try harder. We all can do better. How about taking a child into your home for a weekend? How about taking the child to the Ritz Carlton, so the child doesn't feel intimated and feels worthy of entering into, through this gateway, into a place where they too belong? There's far too much exclusionary behavior that is dealt out to foster children; and until we take them and show them the world, long-term, we won't see the results.

CHIDEYA: So you're not just talking about people who actually are foster parents. You're talking about other people also becoming involved and becoming mentors, in-depth mentors to children.

Ms. ROWELL: Foster care is mentoring. And mentoring is where - it happens where you're at. And as Martin Luther King said - and I'm not quoting verbatim, but -if you're going to be a street sweeper, then be the best street sweeper you can be. And so, you imbue a child with what you know consistently.

And mentoring is essential in a child's life, whether you're in foster care or not. We've all been mentored. The problem becomes in the lack of consistency. We have to have the commitment of taking a child in for years and letting that child feel a sense of earth under his or her feet. Otherwise, it's sand.

CHIDEYA: Thank you, Victoria.

Ms. ROWELL: Thank you.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya with actress Victoria Rowell. You can find out more about her organization, the Rowell Foster Children's Positive Plan, at our website at

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