Local nonprofit Fostering Youth Independence marked its fourth anniversary by holding a virtual “thank you” to the many volunteers the organization credits for helping to provide life-changing support to a total of 94 foster youth since its founding.
FYI’s traditional spring volunteer appreciation event moved onto Zoom, where more than 50 attendees heard how their efforts and support have made a difference in the difficult lives faced by Santa Clarita youth who are aging out of the L.A. County foster care system.
The program featured compelling and inspirational stories told by two of the foster youth supported by FYI. One youth, Shanya, said that “growing up I was pretty much set for failure. My mother and my father were both drug addicts and were heavy users. Not only that, my father was very violent and he would take his rage out on my mother and also his four kids. It was a very tough life growing up. After my mother passed away from breast cancer, my father lost our home. He continued to use again, abuse us and actually deal drugs. Eventually the police arrested him and sent him to prison. My siblings and I were split up into different foster homes until my grandparents found me and took us all in.”
She continued, “My life changed when I started to pursue a degree at COC, where I met Gina (from FYI) after my counselor told me about the program that can provide you with support and caring allies. I was kind of doubtful because of all the experiences I had been through all my life, but when things began to get tougher as I neared graduation and worried about my budget, not being accepted to school, and being homeless, FYI began to change my life. I now have adults I can depend on and people I can turn to in my time of need. They helped me pursue my educational goals and to become the person I really want to be. I actually did graduate from UCI with two bachelor degrees – one in psychology and one in criminology. And now I’m pursuing a career in the Navy as a surface warfare officer. The ultimate goal, though, is to be a special agent in the FBI to prevent and investigate sex trafficking. I cannot thank FYI enough because they truly changed my life for the better and they gave me direction and purpose.”
“The youth we support have been through so much,” said Carolyn Olsen, one of FYI’s founders and its executive director. “Although foster care is intended to be temporary, many children spend years in the system, moving from home to home and school to school without ever gaining a permanent family. Each year in our county, 1,400 youth age out of the foster care system, reaching adulthood without being adopted or reunited with their birth families. Lacking a support system, the statistics for these youth are tragic.”
Olsen said that only 55% will have a high school diploma, and only 4% will graduate college with a bachelor’s degree. Thirty-six percent will experience homelessness within the first 18 months, and 25% will be incarcerated within two years. “The two other FYI founders — Gina Stevens and Stacey Anton — and I firmly believed that we could and should do something to help change these outcomes here in Santa Clarita,” she added.
Another youth named Gabriel told the attendees about the hardships he endured growing up. “Life has never been easy for me,” he said, “and I think that’s a true reality for all of us who have been in foster care. I have endured a very dark childhood. There was so much darkness around me that I really believed I was destined to suffer all my life. I moved back to Santa Clarita but I was just kind of lost. So, I decided to go back to school and put all my effort into getting a degree. I went to COC and that’s where I found FYI.
“It was a weird experience in the beginning,” Gabriel continued, “because I had just come from a whole lifetime of not trusting anyone and being lied to and looked over. It was challenging to let FYI and my Ally into my life. At first, I didn’t understand why they were trying so hard because I never saw my own self-worth. It took a whole year of me pushing them away and trying to not talk to them so maybe they’d forget about me. But they kept coming! Eventually I was at a point where I’d done everything I could, and if I wanted different I would have to do different. So, I started coming to FYI a lot more and they helped me get a tutor, and I passed my first class with an A. I was so proud of myself and it proved what they had seen in me. They helped me get a job in the field that I want to be in – I want to be a screenplay writer. They’re also helping me get my degree in business marketing because I want to have my own business one day. FYI has been a true blessing in my life. It has given me more than just support and a family – it’s also given me my self-worth. I’m truly grateful for everyone who’s helped me.”
The program ended with remarks by Rainie Cuomo, a volunteer Ally to FYI youth for more than
three years. Volunteer Allies have the opportunity to directly impact the lives of Santa Clarita’s transition-age foster youth (ages 16 to 25) by providing support and helping them obtain needed resources. Allies also offer encouragement as the youths work to complete a post-secondary education, and prepare to become successful, independent adults.
Cuomo said, “Not having a secure base of family support, former foster youth are so much more easily derailed by the challenges of life that inevitably come. But with FYI Allies these young adults are connected to someone who personally cares for them and about them, who will teach, guide, encourage, cheer, model and advocate for them. At times it’s really hard for young people who have not had the benefit of having healthy relationships with trustworthy adults, to begin to trust themselves to an adult figure. As an Ally I’ve learned that whatever the response I just need to keep showing up, especially when it was really needed.”
She added, “I’m thrilled to anticipate my student walking across the COC stage and receiving her first college diploma in May, and I’m eager to keep cheering her on as she transfers to a Cal State this fall, and keeps moving down the path to a productive life.”
In addition to thanking its Allies during the event, FYI also thanked those who generously provided backpacks and school supplies for its “Back to School” program, tutored a youth, sponsored a holiday wish list, provided technology, drove a youth to its Big Bear retreat, identified opportunities for youth, donated a bike, contributed gift cards for food or clothing, and offered housing and even used cars for youth struggling with transportation.
“As we celebrate this milestone of our fourth anniversary, we are so thankful for each one of our volunteers for the amazing support they provide for our youth,” Olsen added.
To learn more about FYI and its work, visit www.fyifosteryouth.org.