Mike Dunlavy chairs the statewide board of Florida Youth SHINE, an advocacy group that specializes in child welfare issues. Its focus is Florida's foster care system, which cares for children who are removed from their home due to parental abuse or neglect. Kids placed in foster homes - in Florida and every other state - receive government-funded social services until they turn 18 years old or are adopted or reunited with their family. There are currently about 500,000 children in foster care around the country.
Helping foster children use the system
Twice a month, 26-year-old Dunlavy meets with kids now in foster care, so their questions and concerns can be heard. And they have plenty of questions and concerns.
"Are they allowed to lie to you?" one girl asks. "They lied to me and told me I was coming down here for two weeks, and I've been down here since July."
A boy in the group complains, "[They were] saying we [were] being defiant toward the staff, and they just decide to hit us. They can do that. That's what I'm saying."
Dunlavy notes that the "they" the kids refer to are foster parents and caseworkers.
"Those are the people [the kids] talk to on a daily basis. So [they] start thinking, 'This is it. There's no brighter future. There's nothing to look forward to.' And that's really what we want to change; we want to get them to use the system, versus letting the system abuse them."
Britney is one of a dozen teens at today's Youth SHINE meeting. The 17-year-old, who now has a baby girl, says change starts with a group like this.
"I really liked this. There are a lot of things we need to change about the system, so I definitely want to go [to meetings]."
Youth SHINE Board Member Melissa Bright, a former foster youth herself, relies on Dunlavy's support for the organization - and herself.
"Mike is very intelligent. Sometimes I call him up and say, 'Hey, I'm doing this and I need your help.' And he's right there. He never says no. So he definitely is a leader, great role model."
She adds that he is committed to reforming the system.
Personal knowledge of foster care
Dunlavy's passion to help others is fueled by the 12 years he spent in foster care. He was 6 years old when he and his younger brother were taken from their mother and placed into the first of a series of foster homes.
By his teenage years, the frequent moves had soured his attitude toward relationships.
"I asked the foster parent when I got there, 'Can you just tell me where the bed is?'" he recalls. "It's sad that as a kid in my mind at that point, I was already in the mindset of, 'I know how you are. I know who I am. I know why we know each other. I know what our relationship is, and that's basically as far as it's going to go. It's going to be robotic, and there's not going to be too much emotion between either of us.'"
Studies show that young people who spend any time in foster care are more likely to quit school, get arrested, become addicted to drugs and end up on the streets. But Dunlavy beat the odds of that bleak future.
"I never wanted to be one of those kids who took life as it was coming," he says, crediting his competitive spirit with saving his life. "I always tried to get the best out of the situation. And I was always called a manipulator. I said, 'OK, I am going to manipulate this system. I'm going to go to school. I'm going to get into the independent living program. I'm going to take that check every month while I go to school and work 20 hours a week. At the same time, I'm going to yell at my brother every day to make sure he does it, too.'"
And that's what he did.
Guiding foster care in a new direction
After graduating from college, Dunlavy started his own marketing business, but he made time to advocate for kids still in the system. In addition to heading Florida Youth SHINE, he was appointed to a statewide taskforce on fostering success. In these roles, Dunlavy has helped Florida lawmakers rethink their approach to the foster care system.
Dunlavy says it's most rewarding to know that he's touched the lives of other youth who look to him for support and guidance. He points to a young African American named Delorian, who he describes as still caught up in the young, hip, 'I'm too cool to share with you what I am thinking' attitude.
"To [have him] really come out of his shell and share with me, 'Mike, man, I needed you during those years,' it literally brought tears to my eyes and definitely made me feel better about the sacrifices I took on as a role model for some of the younger guys."
When Dunlavy turns 27 this summer, he will have to step down as statewide chair for Florida Youth SHINE due to age restrictions. But he says he won't let go of his passion for helping foster kids. He plans to continue his advocacy by going to law school this fall.
He predicts, "I'm going to be a very happy person when I die because I'm actually going to be passionate about what I'm doing in my life. Whether I run for office or become a CEO of a company, no matter what it is that I do with my life, the advocacy work will always be predominant. It will always be with me."
In his law school application, Mike Dunlavy wrote, "I have found my identity by embracing my past and using it to help others. I am quite literally a child of the legal system and the law. I will always be in its debt and wish only to fulfill its promise to serve."