For nearly thirty years, Lydia Cincore-Templeton has worked in the service of the world’s most vulnerable people.  Whether she is working in California as a pro bono attorney for children and the poor or endangering her life as a missionary in Zaire and Rwanda during the Hutu-Tutsi Conflict, Lydia has dedicated herself to the mission of securing justice, education and support for those who cannot fight for themselves.   She continues this mission today as the president and CEO of the nationally-acclaimed non-profit organization she founded in California that serves more than 4,000 foster children and other at-risk youth in Los Angeles and Compton, the Children Youth and Family Collaborative. The Howard University lawyer and one of AOL’s “Women Who Make America,” shared with how her terrifying and life-changing missionary work in Africa and Japan compelled her to found this organization and has shaped her approach to caring for at-risk youth.

EBONY:  While you were a missionary in Rwanda and Zaire and Liberia, you were evacuated twice for your safety and twice lost all of your possessions. How did you prepare yourself to go into countries with civil unrest and what was the impact of those losses on you?

LCT: That’s a good question. I was the country manager sent to design the humanitarian response for the Hutu-Tutsi conflict for the United Methodist Church. I never thought [my husband and I would] have to escape or have guns pulled on us, but we did. It wasn’t a lack of fear that it we had, it was just a belief that personally I would be taken care of. I have a very, very strong faith in God. We approach the work we do with no judgments, no expectations, so we can be open vessels.

In Goma, Zaire, we were living in a compound when we were awoken in the middle of the night by armed security who told us we had to leave right then [because of the unrest in the country].  Who wakes up looking at a machine gun? We get a radio call that says all Americans must leave. We had to get our volunteers out of harm’s way immediately. The United Methodist Church sent in a plane for us and we had been escorted to the airport but the plane didn’t land. The rebels were in the city, we’re hearing gunshots everywhere, we’re sitting targets and there was nowhere to go. We did [eventually] get out, but we lost everything. In losing everything it was like, things don’t matter, people do. I lost some cherished items, my grandmother’s Bible, but you can’t take things with you.

In Liberia, we were there for the civil wars and went through the same thing [evacuation] again and we said, “No big deal. OK. We lost things,” because we’d already been through it. I’m not attached to things anymore.

EBONY: Are those experiences what inspired you to start the Children Youth and Family Collaborative?

LCT: It definitely began when my husband and I were missionaries in Africa. We worked with orphans whose parents perished in genocide or died from AIDS, providing the children with clothes, rebuilding homes, developing clinics, and providing education. Then we went to Ethiopia and Liberia doing the same thing, primarily with children. So when we returned to America, we decided to focus on what’s happening here for children who are not living with their biological parents. In America, we need to go back to our African roots and go back to really caring about everybody as a community. Even in Japan, they were so shocked by our work there, culturally, because there, your family takes care of you and it’s a shame on the family if somebody on the outside has to take care of you. So we merge those cultures, this idea that everyone is responsible for the children in a community.

In California, we deal with children who, socially and emotionally, need surrogate parents and that’s what our organization provides for them. We’re different because we are involved in these children’s schools. We have a school presence. We have an office [in each of the 25 schools we work in]. We know the teachers and the administrators. We become a part of the fabric of the school so the children do not feel like we’re aliens. They don’t feel different from other kids who have that support and they trust us because we’re always there.  That’s how the communities raise children in Africa and in Japan.  So we’re using that and we’re shaping the program around the community we’re in.

EBONY: So this approach that you had to your missionary work of having no expectations and being open vessels, how does that translate over into the work you do with the Collaborative?

LCT: When it comes to children I have no expectations of how children act. I accept them for they are and just try to help every child on a case-by-case basis. We have an individualized service plan for every child to give them the education they need to compete.  When you see the statistics here in California, that over 75% of the adults who are in prison have been in foster care, something’s wrong. But no one cares anymore what they’re experience was like in the formative years because now you’re an adult so you should’ve gotten over it. They’re not expected to achieve as children, so they begin to assimilate.

So the work we do with the children is to make sure they’re whole individuals. A child can’t make good decisions if they have no foundation, no role models.  If the biological family can’t provide that then the community has a responsibility.  In America we just say, “Put them in the foster care system.” Systems don’t raise children, people do. So we as a community of people are responsible for every child, whether I’m the biological parent or not.  That’s our approach.

EBONY: And now, you’ve been honored among these elite American women as one of the women who “Make America” by AOL. With that national support and $10,000 grant, how do you hope to expand your organization’s efforts?

LCT: The ‘Makers’ grant has given us a phenomenal opportunity to showcase our program for girls and our curriculum for children. We’re working on a bullying program right now and we’ve also been able to have culturally enriching experiences for the girls, taking them to tea and doing just-because activities once a month because of the grant. We also have them study the life of a ‘Maker’ in each session, and they’re getting ideas about what they can do and be.

Our long term goal is to go around the country where foster youth are heavily populated and to share our model with organizations who know the community. We’re trying to make systemic changes by showing others how we’re achieving the goal of eradicating the underachievement of youth in foster care. It can be done! We exist to make sure every foster child in our program graduates from high school. We do that and then we move on to the next mission. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.