May is National Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the diversity of the AAPI community and their myriad contributions in society.
In Savannah, the AAPI community has been growing over the years, and along with their rich cultures and traditions, many members of the AAPI community are bringing creative solutions to address challenging issues facing underserved populations in the area.
One such individual is Whitney Lam Gilliard.
Of Chinese background, Gilliard is a local figure who advocates for some of the most marginalized youth in the state of Georgia.
Through her nonprofit, G&Co, she provides vital services and resources to young people growing up in the foster care system.
“We provide housing for young adults aging out of the foster care system as well as support services for families that are at risk of losing their children to DFCS (Division of Family and Children Services).”
From their office in Pooler, G&Co. offers a variety of vital services to help foster care youth.
“We service all across the state of Georgia. When a young adult is identified to be aging out of the system, such as on their 18th birthday, a social worker refers them over to us,” she explained.
“We provide the vessel for our young adults to be able to be independent. We contract with an apartment complex here in Pooler. Even though our kids come from all across the state of Georgia, we just make Savannah and Pooler their home,” she said. “So, they come into our program, [and] we get them acclimated with mentors. We get them connected with work. They go to school. Their job is to save. We pay for their livelihood and their living needs — their rent, their transportation, their groceries. Their job is just to save money. . . so by the time they graduate from this program, they’ll be able to live on their own and the lease will be transferred under their name.”
G&Co. goes beyond simply putting a roof over these young adults’ heads.
Through their Permanency Mentor Program, youth are paired with community figures for mentorship and bonds that last a lifetime.
“What we found is that simply having housing for them is not enough. They need permanent connections. So these mentors, they get connected with their young adults based on their framework of needs, and they stick with them. We have young adults that have had help with putting a deposit down for apartments. [Mentors] have helped them get a car. They’ve helped [the young adults] work towards housing and employment and getting a raise. They’ve also paid for rent. . . I love it,” she beamed.
Gilliard is motivated to serve the foster care community in large part due to her own experience growing up in foster care.
From age 14 to 21, Gilliard was placed in foster homes. Because of her lived experience, she says she has a keen understanding of what it is that these youth really need.
“The small acts of kindness that were given to me, I didn’t forget. But was it the band-aid services that helped me, or was it the ones that really came in and saw the unique needs that I’ve had, which nobody thinks about?” she said. “What these kids really need are identities of their own and a family of their own.”
For that reason, Gilliard said G&Co. takes a unique approach to the way they operate.
“Every touch of the organization derives from my lived experience. The quality of care that we provide derives from my lived experience,” she stated.
Those who work with her say Gilliard is a warm-hearted, passionate leader who is making a difference in the lives of so many young people and families in Savannah and beyond through her nonprofit.
But that’s not all that she does. She’s also the chairperson for the AAPI for Savannah taskforce, which seeks to ensure that Savannah is inclusive and engaging for members of the AAPI community.
Put together by Mayor Van Johnson, the taskforce came to be in part due to the rise in hate crimes against the Asian population in light of Covid.
“Our mayor really wanted to do something about it,” Gilliard began. “I think he wanted us to feel safe, and that’s why he created this taskforce underneath his leadership.”
“Our taskforce is a beautiful one. It is a place where there is representation. Our mission is to bring harmonious relationships across the community. So that means bridging the gap of any sector of cultures in Savannah, whether that’s through community service, awareness, sharing cultural celebrations and food. We’re going to do whatever it takes to represent that our community is one,” she explained.
Growing up in foster care, Gilliard recalls a fundamental lack of representation in the households and communities she was raised in.
“Most of the time, I was the only Asian girl there. . . And I lost all of my heritage. I grew up traditionally Chinese. I ate traditional Chinese food. And I spoke my language. [Then] I came into the system and nobody speaks my language. Nobody looks like me,” she recalled.
She firmly believes that positive representation is essential to developing healthy self-esteem and flourishing in your community.
“I want to put a message out there that cultural significance, the roots of children, is very important. You’re going to have children all across the state, all across the nation that come from different backgrounds. It’s imperative to have representation,” she began. “You need that Hispanic attorney. You’re going to need that Black social worker. You’re going to need that Asian professional. You’re going to need professionals from all across the spectrum. I didn’t have that growing up,” she continued.
She said epresentation is also necessary to fight bigotry and bias.
“Somewhere down the line our country has gone horribly wrong in thinking that it’s okay to be blatantly disrespectful to people because of the way they look, the way that they smell, the way that they talk, eat, breathe and just live,” she lamented.
“Without representation, who are we? I guess that’s one question I want to leave everyone to think about. If you don’t have anyone who looks like you or talks like you, how do you know who you are?” she questioned.
In all, Gilliard said she hopes for brighter days, and is working to realize that dream. She credits her faith for bringing her through this far.
“I just want people—when they see my walk of life, I want them to know that God is real. . . How I’ve managed to be able to carry the weight that I carry, it’s all because God is real.”
To learn more about Gilliard and her nonprofit, visit gilliardandcompany.org