#ShineYourLightAlicia Cornils The mission of the Alaska Youth and Family Network (AYFN) is to “strengthen, preserve, and unify families through advocacy, peer-to-peer support, education, and connections to community-based services…” Their work focuses on Alaskan families who have children with behavioral, emotional, and mental health challenges. Alicia Cornils, now the Operations Manager for AYFN, joined out of experience with her own family. “My husband and I first learned about AYFN as therapeutic foster parents for children with ‘Serious Emotional Disturbances,’” Alicia says, “We were looking for ways to meet the needs of the children in our care as well as those of our own family of 4 young children.” Even though Alicia and her husband received intensive training from the agencies they worked with, the daily pressure of responding to the children’s behaviors was still challenging. AYFN provides Alicia and her husband with the flexibility they need to take care of their kids, and Alicia provides AYFN with the understanding that comes from taking care of high-needs kids of her own. “We reached out to AYFN for guidance, and we learned that this was a place where our emotional wellness, as well as that of our entire family, would be considered a priority.” At AYFN, Alicia found that parents and youths were supporting each other by sharing stories, listening and providing support, connecting others to resources, and providing education about services in their community as well as parenting in general. “We got a lot of practical advice and emotional support, which was a huge relief in a time when I felt really alone and incapable of doing the job in front of me. Once I felt more confident and supported, I realized that this was a place where I could really make a difference by giving to others what had been most valuable to me.” While foster parenting, one of the things Alicia and her husband learned from the children was that they desperately wanted to be home with their parents. “This was hard to understand at first, but over time I was forced to consider the idea that more than just being removed to safety, children need their parents to be supported to safety—that part of the reason the children weren’t getting better was because they were in deep pain over being separated from their families. My husband and I came to realize that many adults were suffering from mental illnesses, trauma histories, and substance abuse and needed help, and it became clear to us that we were in a position of being able to share our stories to lift up others.” In 2017, AYFN individually supported 629 families, and 91% of the families who were in child welfare cases were reunified. They also worked with 79 unattached youth, assisting them with housing, education, employment, and community connections. Alicia says that working for AYFN has been a huge growing experience for her both on a personal and a professional level. “I started off here providing children’s groups and worked my way up to my current position. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to operate a non-profit and gained so much confidence in the value of my voice and my lived experiences. It’s been very rewarding to see families heal and reunite, and I’m very grateful to our funders who have invested in our program—the State of Alaska Department of Behavioral Health, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and Mat-Su Health Foundation, in particular, have given us such a great opportunity to give voice to people who are struggling, and helped to end their struggles.” Alicia mentions that she herself struggled with depression and social anxiety from a very young age, but did not receive her diagnosis until she was about 35 years old and the stress of foster parenting had her so exhausted and distraught that she began seeing a therapist. “Between my husband and myself, we have 9 biological and adopted children, many beloved children who were never officially adopted, and 7.5 grandchildren (one baby is still growing in the womb!).” Learn more at AYFN.org.