Local Youth Advocate Wins National ‘Unsung Hero’ Award

December 19, 2010

By Donna Tam  |  The Times-Standard  —  

When Rochelle Trochtenberg criticized the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Service’s approach to group homes two years ago, she didn’t know she would end up being employed by the department.

A former foster youth, Trochtenberg felt compelled to voice her opinion about the group home system at a July 2008 conference the county held to gather the opinions of youth like Trochtenberg. She said she openly disagreed with DHHS Director Phillip Crandall and, to her surprise, was invited back for more discussion.

A lead organizer of the Humboldt County Transition Age Youth Collaboration (HCTAYC), Trochtenberg has received national recognition for her work. The collaboration helps youth incorporate their voices into the department’s policies. Last week Trochtenberg was named one of four “Loren Warboys Unsung Heroes” by the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco-based public interest law firm aimed at protecting the nation’s foster care and juvenile justice systems from abuse and to ensure that they receive the necessary support and services to become healthy and productive adults.

Jennifer Rodriguez, a staff attorney for the center, said Trochtenberg is an example of how youth can help change the system when they are given a chance to join thediscussion.

She said Trochtenberg, who is also a board member of Youth in Mind and the California Mental Health Advocates for Children and Youth, was a catalyst for a number of changes in the county,including improvements to the county’s children shelter, homeless youth services and mental health services.

The annual award, named for former Youth Law Center Executive Director Loren Warboys, is presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to improve the lives of at-risk youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Other winners were Paolo Annino, a Florida State University law professor who advocates for improved conditions for incarcerated youth; Dan Corsello, former executive director of a juvenile justice foundation; and Karen Grace-Kaho, California’s first state ombudsman for foster care.

Trochtenberg said she doesn’t feel like a hero. She said the real heroes are the young people who are brave enough to speak up in the midst of challenging circumstances.

She said she wants to make sure that young people within the system have hope for a better life, and to pass on the acts of kindness she has received as a youth struggling to become an adult.

”I remember very much the pain that I felt as a young person. It really keeps me up at night when I know other youth are suffering,” she said. “I feel like I owe it to the youth, I owe it to society. I feel so fortunate to have found a way out with all this help.”

Trochtenberg entered the Los Angeles County foster care system because of physical and sexual abuse in her home. In and out of child welfare services since she was 5 years old, she was taken out of her home for the last time when she was 13. Trochtenberg grew up in group homes for youth labeled “severely emotionally disturbed,” and when she aged out at 19 she became homeless, couch surfing and living in shelters until she met a family that allowed her to stay with them as long as she was responsible and went to school.

Trochtenberg earned an associate’s degree after eight years, applied to five state colleges and was accepted to all five. She landed at Humboldt State University and started the university’s former foster youth club, which continues to be active today. In 2009, she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in social work, and was named HSU’s Student of the Year.

Adrienne Colegrove-Raymond, director of the student academic services outreach program, said Trochtenberg was instrumental in helping former foster youth transition into the college campus environment — helping staff with professional development as well as helping the university establish a new program aimed at helping former foster youth succeed in school. The program, Excelling and Living Independently Through Education, is in its first year and is seeking full funding to have a full-time coordinator, Colegrove-Raymond said.

Trochtenberg said it took her a long time to become the person she is today.

”There was many years in my life where I never really believed I was capable, as a person challenged with mental health struggles, and always being the foster care kid who wasn’t able to connect to anyone,” she said. “A lot of people came along and helped me see my own value as a person.”

Crandall was one of those people who saw Trochtenberg’s potential. Trochtenberg said she is grateful to the county for allowing her to be a part of the process, which helps her advocate for youth who are experiencing what she has. Before she was out of school, she began to work with DHHS. Crandall said he was proud of Trochtenberg’s work on behalf of transition-age youth.

”Through the efforts of Rochelle and the Humboldt County Transition Age Youth Collaboration, many young people have received housing, food, and support to enter college or get a job. More importantly, perhaps, is that they have been given a voice to call for change in the systems that serve them,” he said.

Rodriguez said Trochtenberg’s story is “a clear reminder about how much potential young people have when we actually give them the space and the opportunity to recognize their potential.”

Donna Tam can be reached at 441-0532 or dtam@times-standard.com.