Gratitude can come from suffering, hope from devastation, and intentionality from chaos.
Early in college I read a quote, “Don’t let your struggle become your identity,” by Ralston Bowles. My response to this advice has been to make serving others my vocational mission. In the last decade, I went from being a former foster youth to serving them. I spend hours every week of my life finding resources for youth and, with them, I track policies that will affect them. I write letters to government officials expressing the impacts I see their policies making. And I think of our youth. I celebrate with them. I laugh with them and sometimes I cry with them.
In the last decade, more resources than ever before have become available to former foster youth in California. Extended Foster Care now enables foster youth to stay in care until they turn 21. Several policies across the state have been enacted through legislative action to help support former foster youth in achieving their educational and career goals. But it is still not enough.
My opinion: the rest of the nation needs to take a look at what is happening here in San Luis Obispo County. I’m going to give you a lot of numbers and some of them are real downers, but I promise you that I have a point--one that matters to me more than almost anything else.
Can you guess the national college graduation rate for former foster youth? Less than 10%. What does that number really mean? Ten percent doesn’t sound great, but let’s be clear, this 10% is out of the only 20% of former foster youth who even attend college. In fact, nationally only about 50% of former foster youth even graduate from high school. When you look thoroughly at these other stats, you’ll see that as a group, less than 1% of all former foster youth will successfully graduate from college. And if you didn’t know that, sit with it for a moment. It’s awful, I know.
Now that I’ve thoroughly broken your heart, let me start to put it back together. Since 2010, in collaboration with our local county agencies, Family Care Network has provided a college support program that provides financial assistance, budgeting support, and connects youth with essential services in our community. Because of services such as this, our graduation rate for former foster youth we serve is 81% overall. This number includes vocational programs, Associate degrees, Bachelor degrees, and Graduate degrees. Of our confirmed graduates, 49% transfer to a higher level degree. Every student who has started a Bachelor level program and remained eligible for services has graduated. And every student who has continued on to a Master level program has graduated.
Statistics show that by age 24, only about 50% of former foster youth are employed across the US. But in our support program, 74% of participants were employed while attending school this year. And none of them are even 24 yet.
What’s better? This population GIVES BACK. Approximately, 70% of our graduates find employment in caring work. What does that mean? They serve others in the medical field, social services, and education. Several studies have found a correlation between adults who reported experiencing a traumatic event in childhood and elevated levels of empathy. Our youth have lived through various degrees of trauma, and they’ve come out the otherside wanting to lift up others, supporting their efforts to heal just as they themselves were supported.
They care because--like me--those negative numbers represent people they know, people they love. Within those bleak stats, they have siblings, cousins, and friends they met in group homes, foster homes, in support groups and at community events. Youth who they identify with and now feel empowered to help. These youth represent a whole subpopulation of people who, with invested time and education, are intimately aware of social issues and have the ability to grow amplified levels of empathy. Why aren’t we tapping into this human capital as a country? Investing in this one subpopulation of people can decrease rates of homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, teen pregnancy, and system dependence.
Now look at these numbers. In the US, one out of every five former foster youth become homeless after age 18; some estimates show that 50% of the homeless population in the US have spent time in foster care. Additionally, one out of every four foster youth has reportedly experienced PTSD--representing five times the national average for the general population and twice as likely as US war veterans. For females, seven out of every ten who age out of the foster care system will become pregnant by age 21; and three out of every four females who age out of the foster care system will receive government assistance to help them meet their basic needs. And then there’s the hardest number to swallow of all--approximately a half of all former foster youth will be incarcerated within two years of aging out of care in the US.
“Everything negative--pressure, challenges--is all an opportunity [...] to rise.”--Kobe Bryant
At Family Care Network, our partnership with our County Partners has enabled us to develop several programs designed to prevent homelessness for former foster youth, as well as those at-risk of entering foster care. I have actively monitored the housing status for 55 individual youth this year. Every year, FCNI works to ensure hundreds of at-risk youth and families find and keep stable homes. Staff support youth in accessing in-house and community resources related to mental health, sexual education, parenting, nutrition, coping skills, life skill development, academics, etc. We have mentor opportunities, tutoring services and, in non-pandemic times, several events for clients to engage with our community for professional networking, academic development, mental health wellness, and to celebrate the holidays.
My point in sharing all these numbers--valuing these individuals has an exponential impact on our community as a whole. Strategic investment encourages healing. Through empowerment and support, this population of people are capable of immense growth--and then they can pull others up with them! I see it every single day. In fact, several of my former clients have become skillful coworkers of mine, serving alongside me.
Time and love are the biggest investments people can make. It’s a big job and it’s a hard job, but also immensely rewarding and important. As we all know, it takes a village to raise a village; so if you’d like to join our village as a staff person, a mentor, a foster parent, a volunteer, a career mentor or even as a donor, please visit us today at FCNI.org.