Serving the Future: California Foster Youth Start AmeriCorps Adventure

Last week, 82 foster youth in Los Angeles County were sworn in as AmeriCorps members. They will serve as peer advocates to other transition-age foster youth. Photo: Jeremiah McWright

For young people who have survived often-turbulent stays in and out of the foster care system, trusting adults and systems can be hard.

“After all, we’ve been through foster care and the crazy situations we’ve been in, if you’ve never been there, you’ll never be able to understand,” said Kamiah Manning, an 18-year-old foster youth from Los Angeles.

For Manning, who was living in a group home until recently, it was difficult to learn about what resources were available to her — assistance such as tutoring, housing and help with applying to college. While many youth staying there were often consumed with the daily stresses of living in a group home, Manning said that group home staff and social workers made it difficult to identify and access resources that could help her as she prepares to transition into adulthood on her own.

“We’re tired of being pushed aside because other people don’t care as much,” she said. “In a lot of cases, we can do a better job ourselves.”

Starting last month, Manning will be one of 100 transition-age foster youth (TAY) across California on the frontlines of reaching out to fellow foster youth as part of a new program that is equal parts service-learning and a first job for many foster youth.

Developed by Truckee, Calif.-based nonprofit iFoster, these foster youths will participate in the state’s AmeriCorps program, where a paid service opportunity will enable them to receive a $1,300 stipend for 10 months and the opportunity to earn a college scholarship. Through the initiative, organizers hope that foster youth will develop the skills they need to forge permanent work — including in the public sector — after they age out of the foster care system.

About half of the $5 million budget for the first year of the project comes from AmeriCorps, a federal program overseen by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The rest comes from public and private funding, along with the in-kind support of county agencies.

The 100 AmeriCorps participants – 82 in Los Angeles County, 18 in five counties in the Bay Area – will all serve as TAY Ambassadors, providing other foster youth with a better connection to information, supports and services. That means everything from how to find emergency housing to where to get your driving license. The goal is to better prepare transition-age youth for adulthood as they get ready to leave the foster care system.

According to a report issued by LA County last year, there are more than 5,000 young people ages 16 to 21 who have active cases with either the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or the Probation Department. Four years after leaving the jurisdiction of the foster care system, 50 percent of transition-age foster youth in LA County are unemployed. Fifty percent of that group will experience homelessness, and 70 percent will depend on governmental assistance to get by.

While the outcomes for TAY foster youth are poor, the issue isn’t always a dearth of resources, according to iFoster’s Serita Cox. Just 27 percent of foster youth in college campuses regularly accessed a campus support program for students involved with the foster care system, according to a 2016 study. Nearly 29 percent of foster college students were unaware of the availability of  programs like Guardian Scholars, which offer mentoring, employment, career counseling and tutoring services to students at many colleges across the state.

Across the county’s network of career centers, only 11 percent of the foster youth participating in the county’s independent living program for foster youth ages 16 to 21 accessed employment services, Cox said.

“There’s always been a gap between a pile of resources that are out there and the fact youth don’t know about them,” Cox said. “The current methods of communication to youth aren’t working. With the population that we serve, trust is the number one issue. [Foster youth] can create that that type of relationship instantaneously.”

The TAY Ambassadors in LA County will be sent to college campuses, county-run youth workforce centers and local offices of county departments to help increase the number of transition age youth using services at those host sites. The goal is to connect 3,500 youth to academic, employment and self-sufficiency resources over the next year, but it will also mean a paid opportunity for foster youth to give back to their peers.

In recent years, California’s AmeriCorps program, known as California Volunteers, has been pitching ideas about how to work with vulnerable populations as part of its work to administer $40 million a year in federal funding for service programs across the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) January budget proposal proposes creating 40 AmeriCorps positions to help young people re-enter society after exiting the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice.

According to California Chief Service Officer Karen Baker, who leads California Volunteers, that’s part of a deliberate effort of the TAY Ambassador program, which she says is “like no other program in the country.”

“We are very strategically looking at not just the traditional AmeriCorps placements, where people can make a difference in things like education and the environment,” Baker said. “What we’re doing is looking at who’s at the sidelines and who really needs to be involved in service and how do we get them in the door.”

Over the course of the program, TAY Ambassadors will receive mentoring, professional development and leadership training in addition to their part-time work. If youth complete all 900 hours of the program in a year, they will be eligible for a one-time, $2,960 college scholarship from the federal government to pay for higher education expenses. They are also eligible to complete the program four times.

In LA County, all 82 youth are between the ages of 17 and 20, nearly all supported through extended foster care or transitional housing for foster youth. The path toward involving foster youth in AmeriCorps — a federal program that has long been seen as a place for college graduates to gain professional experience for careers in public service — was not without some hurdles.

According to Cox, working with AmeriCorps meant dealing with issues like a federal contracting process with strict rules about providing documents like a birth certificate or passport.

“We know that if you’re still in care, you might not have your birth certificate,” she said. That meant coming up with creative solutions, including DCFS workers providing “ward of the court” letters to satisfy federal requirements.

The success of the program could have many other interested jurisdictions from across the country, Cox said.

“There’s a lot of eyeballs on us to see how we make this work,” Cox said. “If we show this works for our youth, why couldn’t we replicate this for every child welfare agency across the country?”

TAY Ambassador Justin Avila with his sister Jaylene, also an AmeriCorps member. Photo: Jeremiah McWright

For Justin Avila, 20, being able to help out other foster youth is a powerful pull. As he gets ready to exit the foster care system this May, when he turns 21, Avila hopes the TAY Ambassador program will serve as a capstone to his time in care.

“It’s the scariest thing ever, but right now, I’m happy,” Avila said. “This is a cool way to go out.”

He’s had some good social workers and some bad ones along a journey in the foster care system that started at age 4. During that time, he’s bounced from many homes across the Southland and even Oregon, along with his sister Jaylene, now 18.

“The pay is cool but it’s the service that’s really important to me,” Avila said. “There’s this feeling inside of me, the things I’ve been through, the hurt and the missing love we didn’t get. It’s something that boils inside.

“As foster youth, we all went through a lot of things. I just want to improve things for the future, set the bar just a little bit higher for the next youth that are going through the system.”


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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 284 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.