This article is the first in a three-part series featuring former foster youth who have recently made the transition from foster care to adulthood, the challenges they face, and local organizations, schools and employers that are dedicated to providing a bridge for the dangerous gap existing between youth and emancipation.
Noelle Costa described being emancipated from the State of California’s foster care system as “a bubble that suddenly pops.”
Costa knows the odds are against her. She knows that growing up as a foster youth and the transitioning to adulthood can more often than not be a road to incarceration, substance abuse and homelessness.
“It’s like one day you’re being taken care of and then you turn 18 and ‘pop’ the bubble pops and the very next day you’re out on your own,” she said.
The statistics are staggering. Studies show that more than 65 percent leave the system without a place to live and 40 percent will be homeless within 18 months of emancipation. Emancipated females are three times more likely to have a child before they are 19. More than half of emancipated youth will be incarcerated, suffer drug abuse and will live in poverty for the better part of their lives.
But Costa doesn’t care about statistics or odds; she cares about overcoming those odds and living a good life while helping others. Costa isn’t your typical 19-year-old, pre-nursing student at California State University, Stanislaus because Costa grew up in the State of California’s foster care system.
In 2010 Costa graduated from Delhi High School and she would have been out on her own had she not been a student at Stanislaus State. In her freshman year Costa lived in the university’s dorms thanks to the Promise Scholars program, which provides support for emancipated foster youth. (Part three of the series will feature Promise Scholars).
While Promise Scholars has helped Costa, she said the biggest challenge after the bubble pops is learning how to live on her own. Costa admits she was lucky, she went straight to Stanislaus State, but for most foster youth adulthood can be a scary proposition.
Late last year, before his term expired, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law AB12, the California Fostering Connections Success Act, which allows foster youth to continue in the system until they turn 21. Under AB12 foster youth must continue their education or job training and work at least a part-time job to continue to be eligible for benefits.
With the current budget nightmares in Sacramento, however, funding for the program has yet to arrive.
While the state stalls, Creative Alternatives, a Central Valley-based non-profit organization that operates residential homes, foster care facilities and specialized schools for foster youth, has recently taken a big step in making sure the bubble doesn’t just pop for local foster youth.
Known as the YES Program (Youth Empowerment for Success), Creative Alternatives Emancipation and Workability Coordinator Dan Mills created a program in May that focuses on and addresses the need for in-depth independent living skills that the vast majority of foster youth miss out on during their formative and teenage years.
The YES curriculum includes a diverse selection of instruction topics such a bank account management, identity security and job search skills including resume writing and interview practice. Additionally, YES gives foster youth the chance to learn even the most basic aspects of adulthood such as cleaning, cooking, personal health and even transportation.
The Turlock branch of Oak Valley Community Bank has participated in the YES program in recent weeks. Branch Manager Dianna Bettencourt praised the program.
“These kids have likely never been introduced to banking and when they become adults it’s extremely important they have some sense of banking. We explained to them how an ATM card works, how to deposit a paycheck and balance a checkbook,” said Bettencourt.
Bettencourt and her staff also taught an extensive course on identity theft.
For Oak Valley Community and Creative Alternatives the partnership is a win-win.
“It really exposed us to something we don’t see every day. It really makes us feel we are really helping these kids and making a difference,” said Bettencourt.
For foster youth like Costa, who was a Creative Alternatives foster youth, the help would be tremendous.
“I wish I had this when I emancipated, it’s great and it’s been needed for a long time,” said Costa.
“All of these things are overlooked because no one ever taught them how to read a bus schedule or how to get around town, or balance a checkbook” said Mills.
Mills said the first step towards adult independence is letting go of the barrier of trust, something Costa has been able to accomplish.
“The help is out there for these kids, they just need to want it. The YES program is made for kids like Noelle who want to make it,” Mills said.
“When you go through foster care you put up a wall because of all the pain. You have to let that go and let people help you because if you don’t you’ll end up a statistic,” said Costa, who moved homes four times since she 5-years-old.
The YES program is in its infancy and the true measure of impact will come in the next few years.
In the Aug. 3 issue of the Turlock Journal, the story of 2011 Turlock High graduate Anthony Serrano and his journey toward independence as he works his first job through a partnership between Frost Bakery and Creative Alternatives’ YES program will be featured.
For more information on the YES program and how businesses can sponsor foster youth, call Dan Mills at 668-9361 or visit www.creative-alternatives.org.
To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail email@example.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.