IN THE LEONIDAS neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans, three blocks down from South Claiborne Avenue, sits a small, unremarkable cafe with an even smaller sign, reading “Nola Vegan.” A pedestrian walking by might not notice it’s there at all. The exterior gives almost no indication of the surprising things happening inside the barred door of the restaurant.
Inside, restaurant owner and chef, Sonya B. Tillison, prepares food in plain sight behind the ordering counter. Just from a few minutes of observation, it’s clear Tillison runs the show almost single-handedly— she prepares all the food herself, pausing every now and again to take a customer’s order at the register or package a take-out meal. A few teenagers help her out behind the counter, taking orders, packaging meals, and refilling the water canteen by the door. What you can’t tell at first glance is that these teenage workers are all foster kids. That’s the premise of Nola Vegan: Tillison opened it to employ foster kids in need of a job.
“My inspiration comes from the fact that I grew up in foster care my entire life, from ages six to eighteen, and it just allows me to give back to others. I’m able to help them on their journey like other people helped me on my journey.”
The journey of a foster kid looks vastly different for each child. Joy Bruce, executive director of CASA New Orleans, an organization providing services to foster kids, lists two main struggles for foster kids on their journey: “The two things that pop into my head are connection and normalcy. We know all humans require connection. It is the number one predictor of our success, […] that you know you have people that are there for you no matter what, that you’re part of something bigger than you, knowing that you matter. When a kid goes into foster care, we have taken them away from whatever connections they had, and on paper, you might look at it and think, ‘Oh, those weren’t good connections.’ But you can have secure attachment even in a really bad situation.” This is the case for most foster kids— growing up in an insecure environment does not prevent kids from having strong emotional connections with their parents. “Most kids want to go back to their parents. In my eight years of being executive director [of CASA], I know of one child who wanted to testify against the parent. One, in all those years.” Forming and maintaining connections is especially difficult for foster kids, because they’re actively removed from the people they’ve had connections with since birth— their families— and they must navigate how to connect with the constant flood of new people that foster care brings.
“This leads right into the idea of normalcy,” Bruce explains. “When a kid is a minor [in foster care], they are in the custody of the state of Louisiana. If you’re in foster care, the state of Louisiana is literally your parent. If you need a permission slip signed for a field trip, the state of Louisiana has to sign it. It’s very hard to feel normal and have normalcy in foster care. There’s nothing normal about the state of Louisiana being your parent.” For foster kids, everyday things such as getting a permission slip signed for a field trip involve bureaucratic proceedings and case workers. “Systems are not meant to raise children. Children belong in families, not in systems, and foster care is a system.”
Tillison aims to help foster kids with struggles like these, partly by employing them in her restaurant. She especially targets kids who have reached an age where they are no longer eligible for foster care, but still need help in their journeys to adulthood and independence.
Until recent changes in legislation, Louisiana remained one of the only states in which foster care completely ends when a child turns eighteen, meaning that on their eighteenth birthday, they are no longer supported in any way by foster care. This is called “aging out” of the system— reaching an age where a child no longer qualifies for foster care. In the past year, legislation has changed to extend foster care services to children past the age of eighteen.
“We went from being one of the only states that didn’t provide any sort of services for kids once they’ve aged out, to now one of the states that does have a safety net. When a kid in foster care turns eighteen now, they get all the rights and privileges of adulthood, [but] a youth can now say that they want to voluntarily remain in the care (as opposed to the custody) of the department,” Bruce explains. The “care of the department” involves a stipend to help with living expenses, case management, and other foster care services. In exchange, kids agree to some rules and procedures, including meeting with a case worker periodically. But this legislation didn’t change until less than a year ago; there are still foster kids struggling with living expenses, connections, and normalcy, both in and out of the system.
The stigma surrounding foster care also gives rise to more struggles that foster kids must face. “Kids in foster care are more likely to be diagnosed with a bunch of stuff, when [the behavioral problem] might just be adolescence,” Bruce explains. “The rate of diagnoses [or thing such as ADHD and ODD] for kids in foster care is way higher than the average population, and I don’t think it’s because they have issues way higher than the average. We’re quick to say, ‘Oh, it’s them, it’s not us. It’s not that we’re being [impatient] or that we’re not willing to work with them— it couldn’t possibly be us.’” Because of the stigma surrounding foster care, children in the system that display minor behavioral issues, like any other typical adolescent, are more likely to be perceived as “bad,” or as having underlying mental illnesses. Bruce discusses how kids are more likely to be bounced from home placements due to minor behavioral issues, even if the behavioral issues they display are quite normal for an adolescent.
“They’re trying to communicate with you, and you’re missing the message,” Bruce says. “And we don’t bear the brunt of that— the kids do.” These kids are struggling with feelings of impermanence, unworthiness, and lack of control. Patience and understanding are necessary to their development and transition into adulthood. And because of the work Tillison does through Nola Vegan, New Orleans foster kids are receiving this understanding and support in a creative, non-traditional way.
When asked what inspires her to work every day in a system that can seem flawed and discouraging, Bruce says, “The kids. The highs are worth the lows.”