Joseph Galata grew up in the woods outside of Pennsylvania in sheer poverty, but he says his family gave him three things: a sense of identity, a sense of belonging and unconditional love.
It is these three things he has spent most of his life sharing with other people, as a single father of three grown children, grandfather to two (with one on the way), a university faculty member, a representative to the NGO Social-Economic Council of the United Nations, a television and radio journalist, an arts and media education specialist, a grief counselor, an international keynote speaker and a seminar facilitator.
For the last 10 years, his focus has been on the Sierra Association of Foster Families (SAFF), where he serves as the executive director. The mission of SAFF is to use education to help people thrive — children and teens in foster care, but their birth and foster parents as well.
The Power of the Arts
Though Galata is responsible for providing many things for SAFF’s foster families and staff members, perhaps one of the most important elements he brings is his passion for the arts, as well as his creative approach to incorporating visual and performance art into SAFF programs.
For Galata, the audience is just as important as the performers, and he brings them together to provide whatever it is that those who are present need. For example, with a musical about Charles Dickens writing “A Christmas Carol,” he invited members of the audience up on stage to play chimney sweeps. One of the parents wrote him later to say, “My 4-year-old has been so depressed, I can’t believe you got him up on a stage.”
Once, while organizing a convention to shine a light on the issue of violence against kids with disabilities, he brought together disparate groups and put on a show to bring public awareness to the issue. Singer Tiffany Story was backed up by Flamenco dancers, Japanese drummers and a black gospel choir.
Another time, he brought together children in wheelchairs and others with Down syndrome to perform a ballet. More than 500 people attended that event, including a young man in foster care, who also has many disabilities and healthcare issues. “He saw the dancers and said, ‘I want to do that too,’ and he does,” Galata shared. “He now studies dance every Saturday. Most importantly, he dances.”
“I’ve seen this over and over again in the 35 years I’ve lived here. It’s all about the energy of creativity,” he says. “I want to help do for them what art did for me when I was a kid.”
The Moment That Changed His Life
Galata was a talented dancer as a child, though it wasn’t something he could study where he lived. In his teens, while living with his grandmother in McKeesport, Penn., he walked by a theater and heard music. He stepped inside to learn they were having auditions for a show. Though he didn’t have the requisite five years of experience or even a headshot, he stuck around anyway. When everyone else took a break, he went up on stage, ready to audition when they came back. That bit of moxie led to his first professional acting gig.
He says he truly learned the power of art when he was 19 and performing in a production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” After the performance, the cast was directed to freeze into a tableau, instead of bowing.
“About three-quarters of the audience was elderly, so it took a while for the theater to clear out,” he says. “In that time, I could hear them talking about how the show had affected them. That’s when I realized there was more to art and music than getting applause and striving to be well-known.”
Galata has since danced on stages all over the world, while also continuing to give back whenever he could. He has worked with the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, even interviewing Anne Frank’s childhood best friend. He has traveled the world performing an anti-drug monologue. And while serving as the director of a hospice foundation, he used arts and media to help families better deal with their grief.
It was while working with the hospice foundation that he learned about SAFF, and they invited him to come on board as the executive director.
How Sierra Association of Foster Families Helps
SAFF’s programs include:
- In-Home/After School Academic Tutoring: Since beginning this program six years ago, SAFF tutors have provided academic services to more than 1,500 youths ages 6-18. During the past school year, they provided more than 12,000 hours of in-home/after school tutoring.
- Foster Parents and Birth Parents Working Together: Rather than foster parents being judgmental or birth parents being resentful, all parents are encouraged to come together for events, programs and celebrations (when approved by the social services agency) for the sake of the children.
- Education Not Incarceration – Arts & Media: Through music, drama, theatre and television production classes and projects, youth in foster care are learning to be creative instead of destructive.
- Vocational Instruction: This program gives high school students the tools they need to be successful in the workforce. Current training includes veterinary, broadcasting, cosmetology and food service.
- Financial Literacy: SAFF’s economically disadvantaged middle and high school youths learn about financial literacy issues such as preventing and recovering from identity theft, private versus government student loans, avoiding predatory loan businesses, applying for vocational schools and colleges, writing scholarship essays, FAFSA, credit card management and other important financial life skills.
In line with Galata’s faith in the power of the arts, SAFF offers many creative outlets for its families.
- Coloring Book Delivery Train: Children, parents and grandparents are invited to color illustrations and black/white drawings on the topics of environment, safety, history, friendships and family relationships.
- Healthy Stages: These 10-minutes videos use music, song, dance, storytelling, cultural traditions and rituals, sports and holistic health modalities to address the healing journey from traumatic and anticipatory grief.
- Reading to Animals: SAFF participants visit the Nevada Humane Society once a week to read to the dogs and cats staying there. The program is designed to improve reading skills, develop an appreciation for books and literature, while also developing an appreciation for pets.
Portraying Foster Families in a Positive Light
As important as it is to give these tools to SAFF families, Galata says it’s equally necessary to use the arts to portray foster families in positive ways. “So often, the media only portrays the negative, with every criminal being a former foster kid,” he says. “These kids need healthy identities and positive role models. And people need to know how amazing our foster parents are.”
Though Galata provides much of the energy, he’s adamant that he doesn’t do it alone. “We have a terrific team of professionals, as well as dozens of tutors and volunteers,” he says. “And we value our partnership with the Washoe County social workers – they are our unsung heroes. Our foster families know we would walk through a blizzard for them.”
How You Can Help
As the organization doesn’t receive any state money, most of SAFF’s funding comes from grants and private donations. If you’d like to help local foster children and their families, Galata says they always need volunteers as well as financial donations.
Your business or organization can also partner with SAFF to provide goods or services, as Men’s Wearhouse did recently when they donated 400 brand news suits to the organization.
“It was great. We invited everyone we could think of to take them. We had the economically disadvantaged, high school students, veterans and people who were homeless,” he says. They also shared them with birth fathers, who have to get a job as part of the process of getting their kids back.
Visit www.educatefosteryouth.org/ for more information.