Vanessa Davis lived in ten different foster homes in the San Diego area from the ages of three to 18. Having suffered abuse, she was determined to create a better life for her younger sisters. At 19, Vanessa took custody of her two sisters as a foster parent.
Then the Great Recession hit. Vanessa lost her bank job, couldn’t pay her rent and was on the brink of losing custody.
Such challenging circumstances are not uncommon for former foster youth. Every year in California, 4,500 foster youth emancipate (or “age out”) from foster care without family support or a safety net to help them during tough times. In California a youth can stay in foster care until he or she is 21; in other states, the cutoff is 18.
Forty percent of emancipated youth will become homeless within 18 months, and 25 percent will be incarcerated within two years. In contrast, the average American achieves self-sufficiency at age 26. American parents not only give their children advice and encouragement along the way, but parents shell out nearly $50,000 to their children after age 18 on their way to independence.
Luckily Vanessa’s social worker knew about San Diego-based Just in Time for Foster Youth, which paid Vanessa’s rent and enrolled her in their career development program. Just in Time’s mission is unique; they engage a caring volunteer community to develop an“extended family” of consistent and supportive relationships for youth ages 18 to 26.
Since 2009, 35 percent of College Bound participants have graduated from college with many still enrolled; a significant achievement given only 1 to 3 percent of former foster youth graduate from college.
Just in Time’s relationship approach is coupled with comprehensive services and training programs to help youth overcome financial emergencies, get established at home and in school and learn valuable life and career skills.
“The need for tangible resources brings the youth to us, but we discovered that it’s the connections to multiple people that really enable self-sufficiency,” said Don Wells, executive director of Just in Time. “We would see kids get scholarships and graduate from college. They were considered success stories; however after they transitioned out of survival mode, past trauma would start coming up for them to deal with.”
Despite having an education, they’d either get a low-paying job or struggle to get a job, Wells said. “Before long they’d be on the verge of homelessness. These kids, like all of us, need multiple people to go to for ongoing advice, guidance, friendship and support.”
Jackie, who did not wish to provide her last name for this article, was placed in foster care at age 16 when social services discovered she was the only caregiver for her single father with advanced Alzheimer’s. After securing her GED, Jackie was accepted into college, but had no furnishings for her new college apartment.
Just in Time volunteers furnished her apartment, and today Jackie participates in their Career Horizons program. One of her mentors, an international marketer, has inspired Jackie to pursue a career in teaching abroad.
“Just in Time really provides a community for us. They get that ‘it takes a village’,” said Jackie.
On average, Just in Time participants develop three to four relationships that program administrators hope last a lifetime. An added benefit: All of Just in Time’s programs staff are former foster youth.
“The fact that new participants are interacting with former foster youth who understand their perspective allows them to connect quickly to the program,” Wells said.
Just in Time served 723 new youth in 2014. All of its programs include a training or mentorship pairing where volunteers educate youth, take them shopping or provide other advice. Among the pieces of its curriculum:
- Financial Fitness: Financial professionals teach budgeting and savings.
- Career Horizons: A career development and mentorship program that pairs young women with successful business women.
- Bridges to Success: Matches young men with volunteers to help them work through limiting beliefs.
- My First Home: Furnishes a youth’s new home and provides a mentor to take him or her shopping to prepare the home.
- College Bound: Provides laptops, printers, school supplies, tutors and advisors.
Volunteers are individuals or groups from local churches, businesses, agencies and foundations. “We train our volunteers to understand that the youth might resist them at first because these kids are used to being let down with broken relationships,” said Wells. “They avoid setting themselves up for further disappointment.”
When Vanessa Davis was paired with a mentor as part of Just in Time’s Career Horizons, she was intimidated at first to build a relationship with an older, successful businesswoman.
“I never had this in my life before,” Davis said. “My mentor would call me, and I wouldn’t answer the phone. Or we’d be scheduled to meet, and I would flake on her, but she didn’t give up. Today my relationship with her is a huge asset for me.”
Davis went on to become Just in Time’s youth services coordinator, and today leads many of the programs that aided her just a few years ago.
“People expect former foster youth to suddenly have it together after a certain time,” she said. “I was taking care of my sisters and never had time to deal with the trauma. I’m 29 now and still discovering and learning stuff for the first time.”
Leah Burdick is an adoptive mom and founder of the Foster Coalition, a group that advocates for and works to elevate the national consciousness about foster care.