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Johna Rivers spent most of her young life with the cards stacked against her.

She was put into foster care at the age of 9, and that's where she stayed until she was a legal adult.

"Everything around me was traumatic from the time I was a baby up until I was 19,” says Rivers.


Kids in front of the housing project where Rivers grew up. All photos via Extra.

But her hardships didn't stop there. Rivers was homeless for three years after she left foster care. This is an unfortunate reality for many kids who age out of the system. According to a recent NPR study, approximately 25% of former foster children become homeless after exiting foster care. The sudden absence in shelter and support also results in much higher incarceration and teen pregnancy rates.

And, not surprisingly, very few of these young people (6%) ever make it through college.

But Rivers was determined to flip the script on foster kid statistics.

She started by making education a priority.

Even though she says her high school was rated one of the worst in Los Angeles, she pushed through it and managed to graduate by 2011.

“I was extremely blessed and humbled to make it out of the environment, and be able to not allow those circumstances to define me," says Rivers.

And, thanks to the help of her mentor, Syd Stewart, she set herself up for a success in a career in the arts.

Stewart (left) and Rivers (right).

Stewart is a filmmaker and also the founder of Better Youth, a nonprofit that mentors disadvantaged youth like Rivers in media arts.

She showed Rivers her first film set over 10 years ago. “She introduced me to a whole new world that I never knew about," recalls Rivers.

Through Stewart's guidance, Rivers learned that she had not only compelling stories to tell, but a powerful voice to tell them with. Aside from her film work, Rivers is a spoken word artist who has performed all over the world.

However, she wanted to do more than just make art for the world. Following her mentor's example, Rivers decided to help others like her reach for their creative dreams too.

She co-founded the Real to Reel Global Youth Film Festival to help raise up the voices of underserved kids.

Rivers (center) with kids from the Real to Reel Film Festival.

Launched in October 2015, Real to Reel showcases films produced by youth ages 14 to 23 that shine a light on often overlooked social issues. The foster system is one of those issues — in 2017, Real to Reel's film offerings were all produced by current and former foster kids.

Rivers hopes the festival will help kids like her realize they deserve a place at the creative table. She wants to remind them that, with a little extra effort, anything they can dream up is achievable.

"You gotta put in the work, you gotta show up, you gotta believe in yourself, because if you don’t, nobody else will," says Rivers.

Rivers working on a film.

But, of course, you'll get further with people like Rivers and Stewart standing behind you. Few people know that better than Rivers, which is why she continues to give a little extra back whenever she can.

When she's not making movies, Stewart is a foster youth outreach liaison for the Spirit Awakening Foundation, which helps underserved youth find their spiritual identity through creativity. Clearly, she's made helping kids like her tell their stories a big part of her life's mission.

After all, her own story helped her realize her purpose. If she hadn't found a way to share it, she wouldn't be where she is today.

To learn more about Rivers and her festival, check out this video:

When You Give Extra, You Get Extra: Johna Rivers

After a mentor opened up a whole new world for this young filmmaker, she wants to do the same for others.

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Upworthy on Friday, April 20, 2018
Leah Menzies/TikTok

Leah Menzies had no idea her deceased mother was her boyfriend's kindergarten teacher.

When you start dating the love of your life, you want to share it with the people closest to you. Sadly, 18-year-old Leah Menzies couldn't do that. Her mother died when she was 7, so she would never have the chance to meet the young woman's boyfriend, Thomas McLeodd. But by a twist of fate, it turns out Thomas had already met Leah's mom when he was just 3 years old. Leah's mom was Thomas' kindergarten teacher.

The couple, who have been dating for seven months, made this realization during a visit to McCleodd's house. When Menzies went to meet his family for the first time, his mom (in true mom fashion) insisted on showing her a picture of him making a goofy face. When they brought out the picture, McLeodd recognized the face of his teacher as that of his girlfriend's mother.

Menzies posted about the realization moment on TikTok. "Me thinking my mum (who died when I was 7) will never meet my future boyfriend," she wrote on the video. The video shows her and McLeodd together, then flashes to the kindergarten class picture.

“He opens this album and then suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God — over and over again,” Menzies told TODAY. “I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic.”

Obviously, Menzies is taking great comfort in knowing that even though her mother is no longer here, they can still maintain a connection. I know how important it was for me to have my mom accept my partner, and there would definitely be something missing if she wasn't here to share in my joy. It's also really incredible to know that Menzies' mother had a hand in making McLeodd the person he is today, even if it was only a small part.

@speccylee

Found out through this photo in his photo album. A moment straight out of a movie 🥲

♬ iris - 🫶

“It’s incredible that that she knew him," Menzies said. "What gets me is that she was standing with my future boyfriend and she had no idea.”

Since he was only 3, McLeodd has no actual memory of Menzies' mother. But his own mother remembers her as “kind and really gentle.”

The TikTok has understandably gone viral and the comments are so sweet and positive.

"No the chills I got omggg."

"This is the cutest thing I have watched."

"It’s as if she remembered some significance about him and sent him to you. Love fate 😍✨"

In the caption of the video, she said that discovering the connection between her boyfriend and her mom was "straight out of a movie." And if you're into romantic comedies, you're definitely nodding along right now.

Menzies and McLeodd made a follow-up TikTok to address everyone's positive response to their initial video and it's just as sweet. The young couple sits together and addresses some of the questions they noticed pop up. People were confused that they kept saying McLeodd was in kindergarten but only 3 years old when he was in Menzies' mother's class. The couple is Australian and Menzies explained that it's the equivalent of American preschool.

They also clarified that although they went to high school together and kind of knew of the other's existence, they didn't really get to know each other until they started dating seven months ago. So no, they truly had no idea that her mother was his teacher. Menzies revealed that she "didn't actually know that my mum taught at kindergarten."

"I just knew she was a teacher," she explained.

She made him act out his reaction to seeing the photo, saying he was "speechless," and when she looked at the photo she started crying. McLeodd recognized her mother because of the pictures Menzies keeps in her room. Cue the "awws," because this is so cute, I'm kvelling.

A simple solution for all ages, really.

School should feel like a safe space. But after the tragic news of yet another mass shooting, many children are scared to death. As a parent or a teacher, it can be an arduous task helping young minds to unpack such unthinkable monstrosities. Especially when, in all honesty, the adults are also terrified.

Katelyn Campbell, a clinical psychologist in South Carolina, worked with elementary school children in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. She recently shared a simple idea that helped then, in hopes that it might help now.

The psychologist tweeted, “We had our kids draw pictures of scenery that made them feel calm—we then hung them up around the school—to make the ‘other kids who were scared’ have something calm to look at.”



“Kids, like adults, want to feel helpful when they feel helpless,” she continued, saying that drawing gave them something useful to do.

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Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Actions speak far louder than words.

It never fails. After a tragic mass shooting, social media is filled with posts offering thoughts and prayers. Politicians give long-winded speeches on the chamber floor or at press conferences asking Americans to do the thing they’ve been repeatedly trained to do after tragedy: offer heartfelt thoughts and prayers. When no real solution or plan of action is put forth to stop these senseless incidents from occurring so frequently in a country that considers itself a world leader, one has to wonder when we will be honest with ourselves about that very intangible automatic phrase.

Comedian Anthony Jeselnik brilliantly summed up what "thoughts and prayers" truly mean. In a 1.5-minute clip, Jeselnik talks about victims' priorities being that of survival and not wondering if they’re trending at that moment. The crowd laughs as he mimics the actions of well-meaning social media users offering thoughts and prayers after another mass shooting. He goes on to explain how the act of performatively offering thoughts and prayers to victims and their families really pulls the focus onto the author of the social media post and away from the event. In the short clip he expertly expresses how being performative on social media doesn’t typically equate to action that will help victims or enact long-term change.

Of course, this isn’t to say that thoughts and prayers aren’t welcomed or shouldn’t be shared. According to Rabbi Jack Moline "prayer without action is just noise." In a world where mass shootings are so common that a video clip from 2015 is still relevant, it's clear that more than thoughts and prayers are needed. It's important to examine what you’re doing outside of offering thoughts and prayers on social media. In another several years, hopefully this video clip won’t be as relevant, but at this rate it’s hard to see it any differently.