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ArtPrize piece highlights challenges with aging out of foster care system

Teenagers who turn 18 in the foster care system often face challenges living on their own. This can lead to incarceration, a housing crisis, or pregnancy.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — João Gonçalves's artwork changes every 18 seconds. 

When the lights are off, thousands of squares represent statistics about children who age out of the foster care system. 

But when the lights come on, a face appears. 

"So, that reveals what kind of happens," said Gonçalves, "When they turn 18, for the most part, they're going to turn into one of those unfortunate statistics."

The seven portraits are made up of three thousand paper squares. They are cut and folded to precisely show a picture when a light is lit below the art. The photos are each of a former or current foster care child.

"Every piece of paper, I have to fold them to create the perfect angle," said Gonçalves, "To have different amount of shading to reflect what you see later on in the portraits."

Gonçalves teaches art to foster care children at a home where he lives in Tennessee. Many of the children helped him create the portraits.

The squares, which total 21,000, represent the more than 21,000 children who age out of foster care in America each year. 

Credit: 13 OYS
When the light comes on, a portrait appears on the paper squares.

"18-year-olds who are not in foster care are typically not ready to live on their own," said Stacey Goodson, licensing placement specialist with DA Blodgett St. John's, "Often times, kids who are in foster care have a little bit different struggles they’ve experienced with some of the things that come along with foster care."

Goodson said they see many children that face these battles in West Michigan. A few years ago, Michigan passed laws to allow 18-year-olds to re-enter the foster care system until they are 21-years-old. It's called Young Adult Voluntary Foster Care. This keeps the person with a case worker, they get a stipend from the state, employment resources, GED help, and more. 

"So, I have a kiddo in my house right now who is about to turn 18 in a couple weeks," said Goodson, "So, I get the opportunity to teach him life skills: how to budget, how to cook. When he makes mistakes, as all 18-year-olds do, just kind of gives him a place to land."

Goodson said often teenagers who age out of the system are just not ready to be on their own. That sometimes leads to incarceration, housing crisis, or having children of their own. 

Credit: 13 OYS
When the lights are off, statistics are portrayed with the squares.

"They are literally just kids," said Goodson. 

Some of these statistics are highlighted in Gonçalves's work. Some read: 70% of foster youth hope to attend college, or 84% become parents within 4 years. 

"It’s shocking, but once you stop numbing yourself to things like that, you start thinking what can be done, " said Gonçalves, "How can you talk to people, be involved, to make a change?"

He hopes his artwork inspires people to help foster care children in their community. 

The artwork can be viewed at the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation.

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