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Furnishing former foster youths
foster youth
Former foster youths, including Jenna Sanchez crouched far right, pose for a picture at the Ashley HomeStore in Modesto where they received their very first furniture. - photo by PAUL ROUPE/The Journal

Jenna Sanchez was spiraling into a vortex of depression and hopelessness. She worried about things no teenager should have to brood over.

Where will I sleep tonight? What if I violate my parole?

Her life was devoid of the simple pleasures that most of us take for granted: a warm bed to cozy up in, a stable home environment, what society would call a “normal” upbringing.

When she got beat up so severely that she had to have nose surgery, it seemed that her fate had been decided and nothing would ever change.

She spent some time in a group home, shuffled between doctor’s appointments, court dates, and high school, until she dropped out.

After years of nothing to look forward to, she found herself in a position to make a positive change.

Her parole officer told her she would be eligible for a program through Aspira Net, a non-profit organization that, among other services, helps foster youth—from ages 18 to 21--transition into adulthood with the skills they need to survive in the world.

She liked the idea of becoming self-sufficient, but it would take more than wishful thinking and blind hope to accomplish her goals.

First she had to meet the requirements of the program, one of which stipulated that she had to be either enrolled in school or working.

And so, she began the process of gathering up the broken pieces of herself, 18 years’ worth, and re-arranging them with prudence and optimism.

She has gotten her driver’s license and focused on finishing high school, with December set as the graduation date.

But if it weren’t for Aspiranet, the road would have been longer, fraught with insurmountable obstacles.

Statewide, there are about 1,900 youths just like Jenna who receive support every year from the transitional program.

They get referrals from Child Protective Services or probation officers to see if the kids are not only eligible for help, but anxious to help themselves.

Those in foster care are interviewed and screened to see if their needs can be met. If they can, then the Aspira Net team kicks in to provide everything they need to be successful.

But one of the most important ways they assist is in finding the kids their own apartment and teaching the skills that, in many cases, they have never learned: ironing and housekeeping, budgeting, résumé writing, interviewing for jobs, making responsible decisions.

For Jenna, the assistance Aspiranet provides goes deeper than balancing an account or saving on a trip to the grocery store. Her life coach helps her foster a healthier relationship with her mother, something Jenna is proud of after a childhood that was anything but idyllic.

“Every day they talk to us,” she says of her coach, who has become more of a friend than an authority figure. “They help us stay on the right path, but you have to want to do it yourself.”

They meet up at least once a week, and sometimes they’ll have lunch or just hang out and discuss the progress she’s making.

Jenna doesn’t know where she’d be without the program, but on a bright blue morning in Modesto, she is at Ashley HomeStore, waiting to be honored--along with four other former foster youths—with new furnishings to go into their apartments.

They stand next to each other before the people who helped make this happen, all of them glowing under the fluorescent lights, the crowd’s phones raised to capture the moment.

Jenna, her face freshly flushed, fidgets nervously at the end of the line. When it’s her turn to share a quick word about receiving the furniture, she shrinks.

The other four gave thanks, briefly told their stories, grinned while holding their certificates of recognition. But Jenna is overwhelmed, grateful to the point of being emotionally burdened.

She drops her head, crinkles the paper she had prepared her speech on, and starts to cry. Her friend Susana, who she met in the program and whom she will be sharing an apartment with, puts her hand on her shoulder in a display of empathetic encouragement.

Those in attendance—the associate director of Aspira Net, representatives for Congressman Denham and the Senator’s office, the city of Modesto, Stanislaus County, the manager of Ashley, and other smiling faces—clapped and showed their support.

Reluctantly, but breaking her tears with pride, she began to tell why this means so much to her. She told of her rough upbringing, her string of bad luck, her seemingly endless despair. Then she looked to the future, described how she planned to attend Modesto Junior College and study radiology.

From there the path ahead of her would be determined not by outside forces beyond her control, but by her resolve and drive to succeed.

The crowd roared and Jenna blushed.

After the remainder of the certificates had been handed out and the speakers had heaped congratulatory praise on the youths for beginning their new lives, they all maneuvered their way across the showroom to see the furniture that would be delivered to their apartments in two weeks.

Jenna and Susana both migrated toward the plush queen size bed with a sleek headboard and plopped themselves on it, laughing and stretching out like giddy children coming into the living room on Christmas morning.

As Jeannie Imelio, the COO of Aspira Net said, “It’s not just a bed. It’s their own.”

They also will receive a coffee table, a sofa, a lamp, an end table, a chest of drawers and some pillows to go along with their bedroom set.

Jenna knows she has done well so far, but there is still a long way to go. “I’ve been through a lot, but I’m still learning,” she says. “There’s gonna be bad days, but we move on…we’re here to change.”

She hopes that her story will help others, but for now, helping herself is more than enough.