It’s All In The Name

Former Foster Youth Puts the Cherish in ‘Cherish Our Youth’

Winner of Foster Alumni Award and Social Worker Award

It’s ironic that as a child Cherish Thomas was often treated the opposite of the meaning of her name — “to hold dear” or “ to nurture.”

After entering the foster care system at the age of one, Thomas lived in numerous homes, including three group homes, a detention center and a shelter. Thomas experienced failed adoptions, including being adopted by a woman who abused Thomas from when she was four until she ran away at 11 years old. After living in about 20 homes in Michigan and Georgia, Thomas aged out of the foster care system, leaving for college at 17 years old.

Thomas went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2009 and her master’s in social work in 2011, both from the University of Michigan. Thomas, who lives in the Detroit area and is in a loving and committed relationship, is a social worker at a residential, therapeutic home and a child welfare advocate.

Kelila Anstett, a friend and former co-worker of Thomas, nominated her for a Successful Survivor Award for her work helping foster youth.

“Cherish is a young woman who is strongly dedicated to the child welfare system,” said Anstett. “She grew up in the foster care system and endured severe abuse at the hands of her caregivers. Despite being abused by persons who pledged to care for her, she has tirelessly worked to help youth in foster care.”

Thomas founded a nonprofit called Cherish Our Youth in 2010. The name of the organization, Thomas said, is a statement.

“The title says exactly what you need to do,” Thomas, 27, said. “I feel like so many kids enter into the system and they’re not cherished. I think that’s not the intention, but it happens. They go through so much and they don’t feel cherished at all. So the point of Cherish Our Youth is to work with youth and help them feel valued and help them to learn how to cherish themselves. It’s also a call to action for people, for society, to cherish our youth because they are the next generation in society.”

Through the nonprofit, Thomas puts together events for young people who experienced foster care and who are at risk; the goal is to teach the attendees about life situations, such as learning about healthy relationships and how to identify poor ones. The idea behind Cherish Our Youth came to Thomas in 2009, when she realized she didn’t know many other people who grew up in foster care and were in college and that she had to figure out a lot on her own, she said.

“The university as a whole backed me and provided the funds,” Thomas said. “We used the campus and we ended up getting over 100 attendees. We had speakers, we had panelists, and we flew a guy in from California to speak. It was the best thing ever and I had no idea what I was doing,” Thomas recalled with a laugh.

“It was something I feel like the Lord placed in my heart, something I was excited to do,” she said, noting that the conference ran for three consecutive years after she started it, when she was a rising senior pursuing her undergraduate degree. The nonprofit hasn’t held the conference since 2011, but continues to hold events.

“The bigger picture was to help youth become successful, to help them to know that there is hope in a hopeless place.”

Thomas knows a thing or two about needing hope.

Separated from her siblings, Thomas was adopted by a single mother when she was four years old. But her troubles were far from over. Together the two moved to many different places over the years, experiencing homelessness; Thomas said her mother became physically and emotionally abusive and blamed Thomas for her problems.

“At 11, I was a runaway,” Thomas said. “She was very volatile and definitely would have killed me if I would have stayed. She called me in as a runaway, detectives picked me up, I went to jail and when I came to court they saw bruises on me.”

Given that her mother was not in the state when Thomas had a court hearing at the detention center and that Thomas had bruises on her, her mother was charged with abandonment and abuse, Thomas said.

Thomas, who believes her adoptive mother was sick and not equipped to take care of a child, attributes her ability to overcome obstacles to a combination of resilience and faith.

“I was totally dependant on God,” she said.

“I needed him to save me. I needed him to do something, to show me he was real. Pouring myself out to God, I think it gave me strength to endure.”

Thomas said she felt she wasn’t alone in her struggle.

“Just because you pray, (doesn’t) mean things are going to get better, but it will help and carry you through. I firmly believe in that and think your chances do increase when you believe in God.”

Cherish Our Youth is a Christian-based ministry, Thomas said, noting that she took the principles of the organization from scripture.

Thomas aims for the framework of the events to be focused on “the psychological and physical well-being of a person.”

“Education is really one of the driving forces that I use as a change agent because school was my refuge,” Thomas said.

“That’s what I relied on. That’s what I got my praise on. When I got an A and got praised for it, I loved it.”

Thomas believes her resilience stemmed from the determination to prove people who didn’t believe in her wrong.

“I took everything good and bad and inside of me and thought ‘There has to be something better than this for me.’ It was the inner drive and determination.”

Thomas is in the process of getting licensed to become a foster parent. She plans to bring in no more than two girls around the age of 14 and up into her home, and would be interested in adoption if that is what the girls want.

Thomas feels for the youth who are “beaten down” and don’t have hope. She feels it’s her duty to talk about her story — and that others who have experienced foster care also should — to help these kids. It’s important, she said to “help them, serve them and build them up.”

“We want to take care of our kids because they end up being adult people.”