Former California foster youth: ‘I was born into a pandemic. I know how crisis feels.’
Hers is not the story of destitution brought on by the coronavirus. It’s not a total loss of life and dreams. For Eustolia Farias, a 27-year-old living in Hollywood, it’s the chipping away of a future only recently carefully constructed, the troublesome what-ifs growing louder as the pandemic stretches into its eighth month.
After a childhood spent in foster care and stints in the juvenile justice system and on the streets, the pandemic has taken Farias from the final stages of a promising career path to a shift job in a convenience store, bringing back memories of uncertainty and trauma.
“I was born into a pandemic,” she said. “I know how crisis feels.”
Farias’ journey is one experience among many similar ones for young adults raised by the government amid a deepening recession and a nation in total disarray. Former foster youth find themselves, yet again, managing the pandemic’s onslaught and economic destitution with little support.
Farias had been attending Pasadena City College for a couple years when its campus shut down to halt coronavirus contagion in the spring. Long enamored by airplanes, she had landed on a career goal that excited her, and she was working in protective gear in cramped campus workshops to become a welder.
Though the American Welding Society projects that the field will grow at a steady clip over the next decade, welding is a job filled 95% of the time by men. That’s never bothered Farias. Wielding a white-hot torch has always felt just right.
At the city college, she found support among teachers and staff, and things were falling into place after rockier years following her release from a Los Angeles County juvenile hall at age 19, she said. She had also stabilized her living situation, shifting from homelessness and couch-surfing into her own apartment in Hollywood three years ago.
Still, life was far from easy. Without a car, she spent two hours a day on the bus to get to the college, sometimes waking up at 4 a.m. to attend early morning classes.
By March, right before her campus shut down, Farias was just a couple of classes short of the certificate she needed to qualify for the next step to become a welder – a city test that would enable her to start working in the field. She was moving forward in school, despite battling a learning disability.
For too long, she said, “I didn’t feel like I could ever be a good student.”
And she found success in the classroom in a way that felt rewarding, perhaps for the first time. Working with her hands gave her a satisfaction she’d never had in school before. Wearing a welding mask adorned with an anime character, she mastered the most common welding technique — making butt joints – along with other fun class projects.
“Welding a garbage can,” she said, “that’s what makes school fun.”
But when the pandemic hit, her hands-on welding classes were halted, and so was the part-time work-study job on campus she relied on, upending her life.
Across the state, the more than 25,000 foster youth who attend one of California’s community colleges have been hard hit by the pandemic, according to Colleen Ganley, who leads efforts to support these young people through the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.
While some of these students have been able to overcome technological obstacles to online learning during the pandemic, others have been discouraged by the virtual format. Ganley said many students are missing the support and relationships forged with on-campus service providers that are no longer available with campuses now vacated. Based on preliminary conversations with providers of these programs up and down the state, she added, there has already been some attrition among college students with a background in foster care, though final numbers won’t be available until the semester ends.
Current and former foster youth in college are especially vulnerable to the disruption of life caused by the coronavirus. Some come to campus without ever having had encouragement to attend college, and too many have had rocky experiences in the state’s K-12 education system, bouncing around across multiple schools and placements.
“For young people coming out of care, they already came to the table feeling a little uncertain and a little fear about not being successful,” Ganley said. “For some of some of them, it feels like the rug is pulled out from underneath them just when they just got that rug in place.”
At first, Farias too found herself unmoored by the pandemic and depressed about the end of her classes. But she didn’t let herself tank. She created a plan.
With restaurants, shops and retail stores closed since spring, she zeroed in on places that remain indispensable to the public, visiting about a dozen convenience stores in cold-call requests for work, introducing herself to store managers from behind a mask.
The pavement pounding paid off, and three months ago she landed a job at a 7-Eleven store in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, a once-thriving hipster enclave. Eustolia was undeterred by pretense in her hunt for a job.
“My techniques were basically from when I was homeless,” she said, “going up to people and not being afraid, but showing them that I’m wearing my mask and I can be responsible.”
Working behind a plexiglass divider, the job is fast-paced and the shifts pass by quickly, Farias said. But workdays can become frustrating when she has to tell customers to wear masks or kick them out if they refuse.
For now, the steady gig is helping her build her savings for the day when she is able to go back to school, even though she’s not certain when that will be. Pasadena City College, like other community colleges in the state, announced last month that nearly all classes will be virtual for both the fall and spring semesters. Her hands-on welding classes are now on hiatus, pending public health approval needed to resume.
Alexander Boekelheide, a spokesperson for Pasadena City College, said the college is “doing all we can to make sure students are safe, first of all, and that their education is not too disrupted.” He said the school will experiment with bringing small groups of students to campus for hands-on labs, as long as they can be conducted in accordance with public health guidelines. In the meantime, the school is offering remote career services and counseling.
With school on hold, Los Angeles Opportunity Youth Collaborative Director Lauri Collier hailed Farias’ persistence in finding stability through both a job and a new Section 8-funded apartment at the height of the pandemic, without much support. She hopes that determination will keep Farias focused on career goals through the latest economic downturn.
“It’s important to think about how do we get her back to her career goals for herself so that she doesn’t stay in the job she’s in right now, which is not really on a career path; it’s just a job,” Collier said. “Welding is a great career that provides a family-sustaining wage for a lifetime.”
Although Farias worries she’ll lose her newfound skills if she’s not welding regularly, for now, she is maintaining confidence in the future she has envisioned for herself, one that one day might include owning her own home.
But she still worries that she is falling behind.
“Welding is a craft you need to keep practicing every day,” Farias said. “It’s like handwriting. If you don’t practice it, you’ll lose it.”
She also misses activities she used to rely on to stay calm, like yoga and support groups. During the stressful time of lockdown, her childhood trauma is sometimes triggered — like when her old building manager shouted at her outside her apartment, which she said made her relive the insecurity of growing up with an abusive parent and suffering repeated evictions.
These days, she turns to her English bulldog, Buffy, for comfort.
“Healing is experiencing other moments, better moments,” Farias said, “the opposite of trauma.”