Lily Ieroniawákon Deer spent a decade of her youth in foster care, and is now using that experience to inform her academic research and support other young adults in her community after they age out of the child welfare system.
The 25-year-old graduate student from Kahnawake, Que., not only recently presented her work on empowering the wellbeing of Indigenous youth in foster care at the University of Toronto's Indigenous Health Conference but is turning words to action by launching a grassroots collective of young adults who grew up in care.
"We do have big dreams," said Deer of the collective.
"It's about connecting with Indigenous young adults from the community who grew up in care and saying, like, 'Hey, what are some things you wanted to help with and how can we help you?'"
The group has been brainstorming ways to support and advocate for their peers, whether that means providing mentorship, financial aid, cultural workshops or annual retreats, and developing a long-term vision for a drop-in centre.
"I wanted it to be meaningful and actually come from people who have lived experience," she said.
Deer was raised by foster families in her own community, Kanesatake, Que., and Couchiching First Nation, Ont., between the ages of four and 14. Although she was heavily involved with local youth leadership initiatives, she said she felt nothing addressed her own experiences.
"I would get really frustrated and go to sleep thinking I haven't done anything to even chip away in any capacity at what I want to help provide, in terms of supporting Indigenous youth who grow up in care," said Deer.
"I was tired of going to sleep like that, just worrying."
More support needed
In the fall, Deer made a Facebook post asking to connect with other young adults who grew up in care. She wanted to take concrete steps to support their self-determined needs for wellbeing.
Jenny Lahache, 36, is one of the women who responded to Deer's call.
"There has to be more support, more than what we have right now. It's not enough," said Lahache.
Lahache spent time in foster homes and group homes from the age of 14 until she aged out of the system at 18. She said there were many basic life skills that she didn't learn from home and had to figure out on her own.
"I'm still learning things. I wish there was somebody there," she said.
"If I could do something that could give people who are in my situation more of a voice where people are hearing you out, recognizing you."
For Deer, she said starting the collective has allowed her to sleep better at night, and feel empowered.
"It also provides a sense of hope for the future," said Deer.
"I can't change what happened to me. It wasn't the greatest experience growing up in foster care but at least in doing this, I can work toward a more positive future for other youth in a similar position."