At the 12th annual Children’s Advocacy Day rally on January 14th, Katie Okumu, a junior at Berea Community High School and a GEAR UP student, shared her story with over 900 advocates in the Capitol Rotunda. Read her story or watch her speech on YouTube.

We are all here today because there are issues in our communities that affect us as young people. I want to start off by telling you why today matters so much to me as a youth in Kentucky.

I was born in Berea, KY in 1998, a town rich in history and tradition. My upbringing was, however, far from traditional. My father left my family before I was even born. My mother passed away before my second birthday. My brother and I were small, and alone in a very big world. We could have easily ended up in the care of strangers, or perhaps in the care of no one at all. It was the kindness of two old ladies – my grandmother and my great grandmother – that saved us. These two world-worn women had the courage to look down at our terrified young faces, grasp firmly to our tiny hands and embrace us as their own. It had been nearly a lifetime since they had children of their own, and all at once they were doing it for a second time.

I remember the pain on my grandmother’s face the first time I asked her if she was my real mother. Her response at first was, “A long time ago, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. When she grew up, she had you.” But I was persistent. I repeated the question. “Are you my mother?” I remember her pulling me into her arms, her work-worn hands pulling the hair out of my face. “Yes. I will always be your mother.” Those words meant so much to me as a child, and still do. I felt secure. I felt safe.

My world was rocked to its core when my grandmother passed out of my life. I was in the eighth grade. My great-grandmother, at 92-years-old, chose my brother and I once again. She chose to once again become a care-taker, while many of her friends were now being taken care of.

My great-grandmother, Ruby Ferrell, turns 95 on April 10th, 2016. While our relationship has shifted some in her growing need for assistance, she still continues to be a provider for me. Whenever times get hard, and the grief of loss sets in – she draws me to her lap and cradles me still. When our bills go up, we sit together in the kitchen and discuss which things we can live without. I do my laundry, but she still insists on folding it. Sometimes I wonder what life will be like when she’s gone. I worry I won’t be able to handle losing another person; a person who is so strong.

There are 53,000 other youths in Kentucky who are dealing with the same conflicting emotions as a result of being raised by family members other than their biological parents. Sometimes referred to as the ‘hidden homeless’, over half of the students in the GEAR UP service area of eastern and southern Kentucky are living with extended family or even friends. Kentucky ranks as one of the highest in the nation for this crisis. It’s a difficult road…one many, like my family, walk willingly with love; the support we have had from organizations like Grandparents as Parents, my church, my school, and my community have filled me with hope for the future.

There are, unfortunately, a great many young people like me who have not been so lucky. Many children in Kentucky don’t have supportive families to hold them up until they are old enough to stand on their own. Even more painful to me personally, is the fact that the majority of those living with their grandparents, or aunts and uncles, are living in poverty. Economic and emotional support is vital to my family, and families like mine, when stability and security are scarce or non-existent.

Through my work with a Berea College GEAR UP group called PALS, or Promising Appalachian Leaders in Service, I have had the opportunity to share my story alongside forty other “future-­building youth” from across Kentucky. PALS has given me a voice, among the 53,000 who are often times voiceless. Being a part of this program has also made me realize that I, along with everyone in this room, ­ am responsible for making the world one where I, and the future dreamers, doers, and creators, want to live. Every young person in this room has the ability to speak up about things that matter to them, especially things that impact their communities.

I propose we start by acknowledging our communities. After all, Wendell Berry once wrote, “I am what I stand on.” We start by recognizing that we are Kentuckians… We start by being proud of our stories, and what they say about who we want to become. Only then can we pinpoint what in our lives has stirred us into coming back to our communities and making a change.

That is the most important thing we can do as youth; to impact what has impacted us, regardless of what family is to us. That is what Children’s Advocacy Day at the Capitol is all about. It’s to stand up for kids like me who need a champion, a voice, and support to succeed. So today, think about the children across Kentucky who need YOU to stand up for them. Your voice matters. It matters to youth like me.

We are the voices of the future. We are the leaders of tomorrow and today. We are Kentucky.