Imagine being separated from your family at a young age because of abuse or neglect, and then entering the foster care system, where you might be shifted among multiple foster families, and never finding permanence or having the guidance of loving parents.
And then imagine that you’re never adopted or reunified with your birth family, and at 21 years old you’ve aged out of the system and are completely on your own, not having the life skills to become an independent adult.
The statistics are grim for these foster youth who’ve had a history of trauma and instability during their formative years.
For instance, only 55% will have a high school diploma, 36% will experience homelessness within the first 18 months, and 25% will be incarcerated within two years. They’re also more likely to experience hardships such as joblessness, early parenthood and substance abuse.
That’s what hundreds of foster youth in the Santa Clarita Valley are experiencing, something that might surprise most residents in our family-oriented community.
May is National Foster Care Month, the perfect time to share ways to make a meaningful difference in the life of a local foster youth.
That’s why Fostering Youth Independence was formed six years ago. As the largest nonprofit in Santa Clarita supporting youth aging out of the L.A. County foster care system, we believe that education is the key to overcoming a shaky foundation and unlocking doors to a successful future.
FYI currently serves 73 transition age (16-25 years) foster youth in the Santa Clarita Valley, and has supported 147 youth since our inception in 2017. We support these youth in a variety of ways during their journey to finish high school, and get a college degree or trade certificate. We assign each youth a caring adult volunteer Ally and a program coordinator to help set and achieve goals in areas such as education, employment, housing, finances, health, transportation, assistance with college and trade school applications, enrollment and class registration, and referrals to resources for food, housing, health, mental health and employment.
We also provide emergency financial assistance when an unexpected expense such as a car repair threatens to derail a youth’s educational plans.
We offer The Study Place for academic support and tutoring, and a Ready, Set, Drive! program to assist youth in obtaining their driver’s license. We also host events throughout the year where the youth can connect with other youth and Allies to create a network of support, and we partner with College of the Canyons for referrals and counseling. We also provide school supplies and holiday gifts.
Our work is making a difference.
Last year alone, we celebrated 19 graduations! We supported 68 youth with emergency assistance funds and transportation, hosted four events, provided 75 academic support sessions at The Study Place, and launched our new driver training program. Since our founding, we’ve secured safe, affordable housing for 56 foster youth facing homelessness.
In advance of National Foster Care Month, we asked our youth for their thoughts about being in the foster system, and their heartbreaking comments provide a window into the trauma and challenges these youths have faced growing up.
A sampling of their comments included:
“Imagine spending your life being told you will be nobody and amount to no one by people who are supposed to be caring for you and keeping you safe.”
“Being in the foster system feels as if you have to question yourself, asking am I just a bother, because in my head I thought the two people who are supposed to care for me just gave me up so easily.”
“We are just as equal as other youths who weren’t in the foster system. It’s not our fault that we were put in the foster care system, so we shouldn’t be looked at as any less or different.”
“There’s a feeling of being alone in a world of people because no one understands what it’s like to be in your shoes.”
Our goal is to embed these youth in a community of care within our valley, and there are so many ways that Santa Claritans can get involved and make a difference in the lives of these youth.
For example, you can become an Ally (our next training session is May 11 at 6 p.m. at Christ Lutheran Church in Valencia), make a donation, contribute to our emergency financial assistance fund, rent a room in your home to a youth, donate gift cards for gas and groceries, tutor a youth, become a corporate sponsor, or refer a foster youth you may know.
Most foster youth want a better life, but they don’t know how to achieve it. Our vision is a future in which every youth leaving the foster system feels safe, connected and loved, and is on the path to a life of independence and success. Our Santa Clarita community has the opportunity to help.
Carolyn Olsen is executive director and co-founder of Fostering Youth Independence.