As a teenager, Jose Colmenares spent time sleeping on the streets of Los Angeles as a runaway before ending up in a group home for foster youth.
Besides missing many days of school, he missed out on important conversations about how he would plan for the future, including developing a career. At the group home where he lived from age 15 to 18, he remembers listening to many panel discussions about drug abuse, but never about careers.
Colmenares had always been fascinated by technology, but in foster care, opportunities to learn new computer programs were rare. The group home had restrictive policies around the use of electronic devices, he said. The facility had a computer lab, but it was usually locked because not many of the youth were interested in it, he said.
“They had a computer lab and an art lab, and I think more of the youth were into art and into going to the gym,” he said. “So, it was just, kind of, go with the flow.”
Now 23, Colmenares has re-discovered his passion for technology and is trying to launch a career in the burgeoning tech field. He is enrolled in a “coding boot camp” and career development training program that Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization Teens Exploring Technology (TXT) is currently offering exclusively to foster youth, called FosterCode.
“I see myself being a positive role model in society. I want to help others, but I have to help myself first, so a career in tech is going to be the first step for me,” Colmenares said on Tuesday night outside of a classroom at the University of Southern California (USC).
This is the first time TXT, or any organization for that matter, is offering this kind of coding course exclusively for foster youth, said TXT founder Oscar Menjivar. The 15 students in the inaugural cohort are currently in the seventh week of the 10-week coding boot camp, designed to offer students technical skills. After that ends, the students will remain in the program for a year, during which they will practice interviewing for jobs and pitching their skills to tech companies, while also participating in events such as hackathons, through which coders gather to solve problems using technology.
Formed in 2009, TXT teaches coding and tech entrepreneurship to young men of color from low-income communities. The students come from South Los Angeles, which surrounds USC’s campus, and nearby neighborhoods and cities, such as Watts, Compton and Inglewood.
Growing up in Watts, Menjivar knows these communities’ challenges first-hand. He saw other young men from Watts get involved with local gangs and go to prison, while he benefited from having a lacrosse coach and mentor who encouraged him to learn about computers.
That investment has paid off. Earlier this year, the James Irvine Foundation honored him for his work with a leadership award for his work with young people of color in Los Angeles.
About a year ago, Menjivar became involved with Hack Foster Care Los Angeles, one of four foster care “hackathons” held across the U.S. to explore how technology could be optimized to streamline child welfare systems and better serve youth and families. Through discussions at the hackathons, Menjivar learned that foster youth don’t always get enough technology instruction or access.
Menjivar said he formed FosterCode, the coding boot camp, out of a sense that most foster youth were completely unaware of career paths in web development. On Tuesday night in a classroom at USC, the boot camp session began with a guest speaker from the dating app Tinder, who shared lessons she had learned about working in the tech field. Afterward, students started working on their own apps and websites on their laptops.
Colmenares had typed in programming code to create a contact form on a website he was developing. He filled out the form by typing in a made-up email address “[email protected]” and a comment that read, “You’re doing great.” When he checked his email, the message of encouragement was waiting in his inbox.
Outside of the boot camp, Colmenares is working two jobs, one at Goodwill and another at Los Angeles’ central train station, Union Station. He is making enough money to live comfortably with housing that is supported by local nonprofit United Friends of the Children.
Many transition-age foster youth lack the stability that Colmenares enjoys. The CalYOUTH study, carried out from 2012 to 2017, found that 31 percent of transition-age foster youth in California were employed at age 19, making them about half as likely as their peers to be employed. A 2008 study found that at age 24, youth who had aged out of foster care had average monthly earnings of $690 – less than half of the $1,535 per month that 24-year-olds nationally earned.
Across the country, many efforts are underway to help provide a pathway to higher education for transition-age foster youth. But when it comes to preparing foster youth for the workforce, not enough programs are in place, many advocates say.
Jason Bryant, a former foster youth who founded his own technology company, Nor1 Inc., said in an email that foster youth should consider the tech field because, among other reasons, “many technology organizations encourage individuality; creativity with a focus on results and not on appearance or conformity.”
“The barrier that foster youth face with getting these types of jobs is one of access and exposure,” Bryant said. “I was a foster youth, and as an example, I had graduated college before I even knew what an internship was. I never realized how important of a path that could be professionally.”
Employment in the technology industry in California grew by about 4.3 percent in 2016 as employers added some 48,500 new jobs in the field, according to technology association Comptia.
TXT’s Menjivar has learned that many former foster youth find jobs that are part-time or seasonal. Those kinds of jobs help them pay rent, but they will not likely lead to a high-paying job or a career path, he said.
“One of the hopes we have is to develop youth to be self-reliant with upwardly mobile jobs,” he said.
When Colmenares turned 18, he was eager to leave his group home and felt ready to take on the world. In hindsight, he was “foolish,” he said. He did not fully understand the concept of making a salary and paying rent, and he quickly ended up on the street.
“Foster kids – they’ve been thrown astray already. They’re so confused,” Colmenares said. “I didn’t know where to go.”
Colmenares ended up homeless before he was taken in by his uncle, a mechanical engineer who owns his own company. His uncle served as a mentor, teaching him about engineering and ultimately inspiring him to pursue a career in the tech field.
About three months ago, Colmenares was an attendee at a networking and career development session held by nonprofit iFoster, which brought in Menjivar as a guest speaker. That was how Colmenares learned about TXT’s FosterCode program.
Seven weeks into the program, he is learning important skills that he hopes will help him get a job as a coder at a tech company and perhaps even something more ambitious.
He is designing an app that would inform Latino mothers in Los Angeles about resources they can access and connect them in a peer-to-peer support program. He knows from experience how extra support and a strong network can help people navigate challenges.
“There’s a lot of people who want to do good, and they just need a little more help,” he said.