At 28, Sarah Thomas has lived a life well beyond her years. It all comes back to her as she walks toward her San Jose neighborhood park, hand-in-hand with her two sons and eager to get in some playtime before she heads off on an impromptu date with her husband.
“When I was your age, this was just a field with some benches,” she tells her young boys, ages 6 and 11.
Thomas moved to the area more than 20 years ago, shortly after entering foster care. Much has changed in the years since she aged out. A lot has stayed the same.
Like most of her neighbors, Thomas is low-income, and has had to struggle her entire life, through unspeakable horrors and desperate loneliness. But education would shift her personal narrative. And beginning at age 20, she returned to school to earn her high school diploma and enroll in college to become a physician’s assistant.
Everything was on track before the coronavirus pandemic.
Current and former foster youth across the United States have felt the pain of this pandemic like few other demographic groups. Weighted down by traumatic pasts and struggling with delays in their education and fragile links to gainful employment, a national survey shows two-thirds had been laid off or had their hours significantly reduced in the first weeks of the pandemic — making already precarious financial situations worse. The University of Pennsylvania, which surveyed current and former foster youth in 32 states and Washington, D.C., found what Thomas has lived firsthand this past year: Just months into the pandemic, more than two-thirds had already suffered “a major impact on their educational progress or attainment.”
As the academic year ended last month, Thomas, who has learning disabilities, has seen her treasured 3.9 GPA slip since classes at San Jose City College moved online. Her chemistry class had been transformed into a series of videos of her professor conducting experiments. Any questions Thomas had needed to be emailed. Teachers responded when they could.
“If the teacher doesn’t interpret my question the way I need her to, then I have to ask the whole question again. It’s just a matter of like, basically email tag,” she said in recent months, in a series of interviews with a reporter and a visit to her South Bay home.
Studying at home added pressure to an already stressful life.
Now she tries to unwind on her days off from a security job, taking care of her house and kids. She tries to stay on top of everything.
“It’s just overwhelming,” she said. “And I honestly feel like I’m to the point where I should just drop out of school and just wait until the pandemic is over with.”
To take off some of the strain, Thomas has abandoned her dream of becoming a physician’s assistant, pivoting to a business major. But this, too, feels like a loss. She regrets not graduating high school on time. She could have been a doctor by now, she tells herself.
Like many other young people who grew up in foster care, Thomas left the classroom early. The trauma of her life became all-consuming, overwhelming her in key moments so focusing on her studies seemed impossible.
In describing her childhood, Thomas said her biological father was never around. Her mother lost custody of her when she was 7, during a years-long battle with addiction. So she was raised by her stepfather, in the same apartment where she lives today, a two-bedroom unit tucked at the back of a small complex. Just a few years after her stepfather took her in, her mother died of complications from substance abuse.
By any measure, that’s a lot of trauma for a young girl to cope with. It was harder still without her mom. Thomas said she attempted suicide when she was just 11 years old, landing in the hospital. At the time, she said, she was desperately in need of “a sense of being,” a family who would love and care for her.
“I didn’t care,” she said. “I didn’t want to live anymore.”
Then, as if one young girl hadn’t lived through enough torment, Thomas said at age 13 she was raped by an adult she had trusted; someone who offered to take her for ice cream when she was playing with friends in a park.
Thomas tried to tuck that trauma away deep inside herself, where the memory might not torment her.
She set out to find herself a family: street gangs. Thomas, who is white, set her sights on the predominantly Latino Norteños. Gang leaders insisted she prove herself, she said. She started smoking cigarettes. Switched from cigarettes to cannabis, and from cannabis to crystal methamphetamine — all before her 14th birthday.
“I looked at it as a way out to avoid my problems,” Thomas said. But again, she was met with tragedy. She overdosed, leaving her with the memory of her stepfather’s face, which had a look of “complete and total loss of hope. Like, ‘You’re going to wind up just like your mother.’”
She said that incident prompted her to never touch drugs again, and to work to prove her stepfather — and professionals in the foster care system who she felt had limited expectations of her — wrong.
Thomas had her first son at age 16, which presented a new set of challenges. The most comprehensive studies of youth aging out of foster care, conducted by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, show that over half of the young women surveyed who grew up in the system in some parts of the country gave birth to a child by age 23, a rate far more frequent than the general population.
For Thomas, that presented yet more battles. Among the dozens of social workers assigned to her while she lived in foster care until age 21 and later had her second child, few seemed interested in preserving her family. And they added to an accumulation of negative experiences: “Them wanting to take me away, them wanting to separate me from family, them wanting to destroy my life,” Thomas said.
University of Chicago researchers, who have documented an array of hurdles and hardships among the hundreds of former foster youth they have tracked over decades, have also found remarkable optimism. They describe the “amazing resilience,” of foster youth surveyed, and “enormous potential.”
“They remain overwhelmingly optimistic about their future, are generally satisfied with their life, and are confident in their ability to achieve their goals.” They are determined to stay in school, or go back to school, and “most report having enough people to rely on for support, with all but a few reporting that they have multiple members in their support network,” the researchers concluded.
In 2016, when she was 23, Thomas found that support when she visited Santa Clara County’s center for foster youth, affectionately known as The Hub. The drop-in center provides snacks, access to computers and health care as well as resources helping young people connect with school, jobs and legal representation. While there, she enrolled in the Opportunity Youth Academy, which allowed her to earn her high school diploma through independent study.
The program also introduced her to Pivotal, a South Bay nonprofit organization that provides current and former foster youth with personal coaches to guide them through school and provide individualized support.
Savonna Stender-Bondesson, director of coaching programs at Pivotal, described the relationships between the coaches and young people like Thomas as completely reliant on trust. Coaches have weekly meetings with their scholars to keep them on track and sometimes that means having hard conversations to hold the students accountable.
Thomas was able to stop by The Hub a couple of times each week, to meet with her Pivotal coach and work on her high school diploma. Her youngest son, who was an infant at the time, would play on the floor while Thomas studied. She said it made all the difference.
Stender-Bondesson praised Thomas’ determination, noting that there aren’t many resources for foster youth juggling school, work and a family.
“It's tough having a toddler and a baby,” she said. “And it's really tough when you've now become the student who's also a teacher.”
When her day to graduate high school came in 2016, Thomas said she was the oldest graduate at the ceremony. She recalls feeling acutely the absence of her mother and stepfather, who by then had both passed away before they could see her walk across the stage to receive her diploma. It was the sight of her oldest son, proudly pointing and waving his small hands at her, that filled her with joy.
“Even though my mom wasn't there physically, I felt her emotionally, spiritually,” she said. “She was watching over me.”
After receiving her diploma, Thomas’ Pivotal coach asked her what was next. When Thomas didn’t have an answer, she was encouraged to go to college. Growing up in foster care, Thomas said she never learned how to manage credit cards or navigate the financial system, but she knew enough to fear student loan debt. When she learned former foster youth can attend a community college or California State University for free, that became the plan.
Since then, she’s gotten married, raised her two children and continued to work.
Over the past year, new challenges arose. During the pandemic she had her hours at her security job cut in half, leaving her emergency fund depleted.
But she’s determined to keep up with her goal of graduating with a bachelor’s degree, and plans to find full-time work as soon as she can. She’s planning a big ceremony to mark her marriage in the coming months.
“Sarah is one of those people who I have to always stand in awe of because of not only what she's been through, but how she's transforming her trauma into medicine,” says Juan Gamboa, her professor of ethnic studies at San Jose City College. “She always talks about having high standards for herself just to prove that she can do this, and to set as a model and example that even when there's obstacles you can overcome.”