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Mentoring Foster Teens to Independence

By Pamela B. Smith, Director, County's Aging & Independence Services

....Each year, approximately 4,000 youth in California “age out” of foster care, meaning they exit the child welfare system simply because they reach the age of 18, not because they have been returned to families or adopted.

After leaving the system, 70 percent of youth report they would like to attend college, but fewer than 10 percent of those who graduate from high school enroll in college. Nationwide, only 46 percent of foster youth even complete high school. Nearly half of former foster youth experience homelessness within 18 months of emancipation and a quarter are incarcerated within two years. In the County of San Diego, multiple initiatives are changing these statistics in a positive way and supporting a former foster youth graduation rate 30 percent above the average.

You may have seen the front-page article in the San Diego Union-Tribune (July 17; “Quarterback Calls a Play for Education”) about my son Alex’s foundation to help foster teens in transition. He has helped create a Guardian Scholars Program at SDSU that will provide a scholarship package for up to 50 former foster youth annually. Not only will they receive tuition, but year-round housing, meals, books, career guidance and more. Normally, students might get help for those needs from parents, but these youth don’t have families they can count on for assistance.

The County has also been working to offer foster youth better options for their future, and these programs have been strengthened by the mentorship from seniors.

You are probably aware of the San Pasqual Academy, which was spearheaded by Supervisors Ron Roberts and Greg Cox. This campus in Escondido offers a haven of education and support for foster high school students who might otherwise find themselves moving from placement to placement, school to school. Three years ago, older adults moved into homes surrounding the campus. They were given a discount on their rent in exchange for mentoring the students. These seniors became officially known as the San Pasqual Academy Neighbors (SPAN), and unofficially known as “grandma” and “grandpa.” These surrogate relatives have become integral in the lives of the students, teaching them life skills and being there for them in many other ways.

We have another opportunity for older adults to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth in our county: the Workforce Academy for Youth (WAY).

Over the past year, the County has developed WAY to help foster youth better prepare for careers. WAY provides six months of paid employment in County departments for foster youth ages 17 to 21. The youth also receive career guidance. The program includes job coaches, who supervise them at the job site, assisting them in learning and performing the duties of the job. Areas of attention may include: responsibility, communication, respect for bosses and co-workers, reliability, etc. Performance evaluations are completed by the job coach.

The program also seeks adults ages 50 and older to become Life Skills Coaches for these young people. Life coaches meet with the youth on a weekly basis for 3 to 5 hours. They also attend a monthly meeting and receive a $250 stipend each month.

The goal for the Life Skills Coaches is being good role models, providing a consistent and reliable relationship with the youth. Life coaching activities may include but are not limited to: teaching about the importance of keeping commitments, assistance with signing up for college and applying for scholarships, supporting attention to dental and medical issues, lending assistance with housing, child care, school and transportation issues.

To learn more about becoming a Life Skills Coach, contact Judy Joffe at (858) 505-6332. For more on the Alex Smith Foundation, see www.alexsmithfoundation.org.


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