Zyliah Isom, 10, reached into her Old Navy shopping bag, elated to share what she picked out with her gift card she received at the Tidings for Teens annual back-to-school shopping event on Sunday.
“I got a cute dress,” said Isom. “These are really cute. Like they would match like anything if I put it together. When I was buying the sweater, I said, ‘I could put any fall or summer thing together and I would slay the outfit.’ I’m just really excited for today.”
Isom was one of hundreds of foster children and families who were able to pick out whatever they wanted, up to $100 worth, from the Old Navy on The Old Road.
Event organizers said one of the most isolating aspects for kids growing up within the foster care system was not being able to have new clothes ahead of the school year. But because of events like the one on Sunday, children like Isom are able to look fresh on the first day.
“I’m super happy, because I would never be able to do this,” said Isom.
The event was done in coordination with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Melissa Walker, Isom’s social worker, said foster youth are often overlooked and their lives aren’t easy.
Often foster youth can be separated from family members and have to endure the complexities of navigating through childhood, teen years and early adulthood through adversity and without “outside the system” support.
“A lot of our families are still kind of living month to month and so when it comes to the back-to-school events, this gives the kids an opportunity to be able to feel like, ‘OK, somebody actually cares,’” said Walker. “You know what I mean? Other than just the kind of caregiver, other than just the social worker, (that) somebody cares and wants to make sure that you’re taken care of.”
Sunday’s event was among the first for Tidings for Teens — which officially became a nonprofit last year — to be extended to young adults who are transitioning out of the foster care system, which happens at 21 years old.
Walker said that just because someone is 21, most are not quite ready to be “adults” yet. By the time they’re on their own, it’s still difficult to afford things like housing, groceries and clothes. While Sunday’s clothing giveaway is only done once a year and, thus, only an incremental help, it is still very much appreciated by all of those involved.
“This event in particular is just really awesome. It really shows the impact that community has and how much they care about our foster youth and making sure that they’re taken care of,” said Walker. “It shows that someone cares that they want them to go back to school ready and feeling relaxed and not overwhelmed.”
Tidings for Teens was co-founded by two 8-year-old twins named Kaylin and Jessica Mai back in 2014. They were inspired to start the project because of their mother, Tammey, who was a part of the foster care system herself.
The twins, now in high school, said the organization began by just helping out teens in any way, but blossomed into a partnership with the DCFS to address the specific needs of foster youth and, as they discovered, one of the biggest was clothing.
“People normally donate things like toys, dolls, cars, things for the little kids and that doesn’t really benefit the teen,” said Jessica. “So we saw gaps like that in the system and we wanted to help alleviate that as much as we can.”
Santa Clarita Mayor Jason Gibbs, who was at the event, said it was admirable that Jessica and Kaylin had a passion for helping and were able to bring that passion into fruition. Gibbs said that while the county is great for providing resources, distributing them is better handled by nonprofits such as Tidings for Teens.
“I think the reality is the one thing I think the city does so successfully is we realized that nonprofits and people with passion will always be more productive than government bureaucracy,” said Gibbs. “The government’s necessary to help drive the resources but it takes getting it into the people who want to do the most help, and can do the most help (to) get them so that they can do it, and I think this is a perfect example.”
Event organizers hope that more funding and support will mean that events such as the one on Sunday will affect more and more people each year into the future.