Imagine you are a self-conscious teenager whose entire wardrobe consists of hospital gowns.

Imagine you’re a young girl experiencing menstruation for the first time but denied sanitary pads — forced to improvise using toilet paper and staples.

Imagine your food preferences are ignored, and you are offered packaged ramen and powdered milk for your meals.

Imagine your father is in prison and your group home will not authorize you to accept his collect calls or pay for you to visit him.

This has been the experience of many foster youth today.

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Former foster youth Captain Young donated artifacts that are featured in the new Foster Youth Museum exhibit in Oakland this month. Photo credit: Ray Bussolari

Developmental disruption, institutionalization, powerlessness, loss — all of these afflictions are depicted in the first-ever Foster Youth Museum, the largest collection of art, artifacts and video portraits of youth experiences in foster care.

But also depicted are the transformational powers of hope and the life-changing effects of supportive adult relationships, collaborative decision-making, positive encounters, education and respect.

The “Lost Childhoods” exhibit, presented by Foster Youth Museum in partnership with California Youth Connection and the Y.O.U.T.H. Training Project, is open to the public every Saturday in March from 1 to 5 p.m. at Warehouse 416 in Oakland’s Uptown district.

Conceived by current and former foster youth ages 16 to 24, the museum — which originated here in Oakland and took nine years to develop — offers a unique opportunity to understand the lives of foster youth through objects that hold special meaning for them.

I was given a tour of the exhibit by Jamie Lee Evans, herself a former foster youth, who with Jeanie Yoon is co-director of Foster Youth Museum.

Some of the artifacts, artworks and video portraits on display were donated by former foster youth who went on to become successful lawyers, parents, child welfare professionals and community leaders. The purple teddy bear was given by one foster child to her sister in another home as a way to stay connected. Dental floss is something often denied to foster youth resulting in poor dental hygiene. There are loving letters from an incarcerated father wanting to stay connecting to his daughter. There are more disturbing icons: belts, handcuffs and condoms, all part of the everyday existence of young people lacking voices and power.

In the words of one museum contributor, “The foster care system leaves a footprint of loss, and I’ve had to unlearn every single way the system raised me.”

This museum exhibit encourages visitors to take action — or, as the organizers put it, to “see your part in the solution.” Can you volunteer as an adult supporter? Make a cash contribution so the exhibit can be brought to other California communities? Or, most profoundly, could you consider becoming a foster parent yourself?

The creators of this project hope to lend the exhibit to galleries or to groups involved in training or raising awareness about foster youth. Here is what they tell prospective curators about the display:

Supplemental: Exhibit Journal for visitor reflection; promotional resources
Size: Approximately 100 running feet
Weight: 500 lbs.
Category: History & Culture; Social Justice
Security: Varies by installation

Here’s what they don’t say: You’ll be inspired by the stories of young people, whose resilience and courage will take your breath away.

For more information, go to FosterYouthMuseum.org, or visit Warehouse 416 at 416 26th St.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. For guidelines, see: http://oaklandlocal.com/guidelines.

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