Imagine a child who has endured unimaginable abuse, neglect, and abandonment - horrors that many of us will never have to experience. This child has been passed through the foster care system and has lost any stable relationship. Then, at 18, when most young people are figuring out where they will go to college, he is questioning where he will sleep or what he will eat. Unfortunately, this is the reality that many of those aging out of the foster care system face. Every year, there are more than 20,000 young adults who age-out of foster care and this is just the tip of the iceberg for the challenges that they must overcome.
I started working with foster youth in a volunteer capacity over 16 years ago and joined OC United in 2014 as the Director of Foster Care. Early on, I realized that I had several misconceptions about foster care youth and the system. The first was that all these children needed was a safe place to live. The second was that caring for foster youth was the government’s problem - that the system we have in place is enough. I quickly learned that it’s not as simple as providing shelter for these children because many of them have experienced so much trauma. It became clear that what they need are restorative, stable relationships that can support them through the most critical and difficult times in their lives. That is exactly our philosophy at OC United in working with foster youth. Over the years I have seen our young adults accomplish great things despite the odds stacked against them, given a little bit of compassion and hope.
OC United’s THRIVE program works with former foster and at-risk youth to empower them to be self-sufficient and successful. We provide a home for these young adults so they can focus on developing essential life skills, forming restorative relationships, and building a strong foundation for a bright future. Additionally, each person receives individualized case management with goals tailored to his/her needs and circumstances. Through the program, these young adults work incredibly hard to secure their future. The youth who have come out of THRIVE are now working full-time, living in their own apartments, and forming healthy relationships - all because they had the necessary support when they needed it most. Yet, their situation could be entirely different if they did not come to OC United when they did. There are still many former foster youth facing homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration.
From a developmental standpoint, young adults are in a time of their lives when they are figuring out their identities, solidifying their support system, and establishing their careers, so for aged-out foster youth, this is really the critical time to address some of the systemic issues if we want to end the cycle of homelessness. This is why it is so important for the community to advocate for these young adults. At the end of the day, these former foster youth are resilient children who just want a fighting chance, and we can give that to them by being present and investing our time.
As a community, we have the opportunity to change the lives of our at-risk youth and, in the long-run, end the cycle of homelessness. In the same way that your own children, nieces, and nephews need someone to believe in them, so do these foster youth. There are many ways that you can get involved. If you feel called to become a mentor or sponsor for our youth, please contact OC United THRIVE director, Jim Deming.
We are continually growing our THRIVE program to empower more former foster youth. I am so happy to announce that we have partnered with HomeAid Orange County to open a fourplex later this year, which will serve young women and single mothers from the foster care system. We need your help to furnish the home. You can visit our registry to help make this home a warm and safe place for our young women. To learn more about OC United and how you can make a difference, visit ocunited.org.
THRIVE Quad house in Fullerton, CA opening later this year