BHS senior readies for D.C.

December 01, 2023
High school senior Salena Jannsens poses for a photo in the school hallway

Burlington High School senior Selena Jannsens will meet with Iowa’s U.S. representatives in Washington, D.C., this month to advocate for increased foster care funding.

In two short weeks, Burlington High School senior Selena Jannsens will board a plane and head to Washington, D.C., for a congressional briefing.

There, she’ll meet with Iowa’s U.S. representatives and senators to advocate for increased funding to the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which provides current and former foster care youth with support and resources to achieve self-sufficiency.

“If they’re over the age of 14 and they spend at least one day in the foster system, then they get ability to access Chafee funds, which can go for food, clothes, education, a full ride to college, everything like that,” Jannsens explained Nov. 20 outside her sixth period classroom at BHS.

Jannsens will depart for the nation’s capital on Dec. 12 and will return Dec. 15. She’s spent the weeks ahead of her first-ever plane trip doing research not just on the Chafee program and its needs, but also on U.S. Reps. Zach Nunn and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, as well as U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst.

The trip is both a mission of advocacy and an exercise in politics for a young woman who aspires to one day hold public office.

And it all started with a survey.

“In the foster system, you have to do this survey that basically asks how has your experience with foster care been,” said Jannsens, who entered the foster care system about two years ago. “The website wasn’t working, so I actually talked to a lady named Brianna Deason. She asked me the questions and afterward we just got to chit-chatting and she asked what I want to do after high school.”

Jannsens told the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services youth development specialist that she plans to study communication at Southeastern Community College for two years before transferring to the University of Iowa to study political science, a field she first became interested in thanks to her foster mother, Kyla Land. Classes and assignments at BHS further nurtured her growing passion.

Deason had taken a similar post-secondary education path. The two continued to talk, and Jannsens told her about a rally she put on to raise money for a memorial bench and her work alongside other members of BHS’s Bring Change to Mind Club’s Walk to Fight Suicide.

Jannsens’ activism, experience in the foster system, and inquisitive nature made her an ideal candidate to be a National Youth in Transition Database Program ambassador.

“It’s basically where I collect data from the foster system on how to improve transitioning in and out of the foster system, and I actually get paid for it, which is great,” Jannsens said. “Then I just got a random email one day asking if I would like to go to Washington, D.C., to advocate for them.”

Jannsens was quick to accept the invitation. She plans to talk to the legislators about how damaging sibling separation can be, something she said she is fortunate not to have had to endure herself, as well as the stress that placing children in foster care long distances from their hometown can bring.

“There’s so many things that can help kids transition in and out better,” she said.