Today’s Good People Doing Good Things post honours both an organization, and the two women who founded that organization.
Imagine, if you will, being 18 years old, having been taken from your parents at an early age and bounced from one home to another in the ensuing years, struggling to do well in school after school, and then on your 18th birthday being told you must leave your home. Forever. You have no job, you have no money, no car, and now no home. This is the fate of far too many kids who are in the foster care system when they turn 18, or in some states 21. The foster care system is riddled with problems … unqualified care givers, lack of funding, etc., but ‘aging out’ of the system may well be the biggest.
Enter one of todays ‘good people’, Amy Lemley. Amy was a former case manager in a group home run by the state of California where every day she saw firsthand the abuses, the desperation, and the statistics of what happened to the kids once they turned 18. But Amy did not just sit around and talk about the problem … she decided to do something about it.
Recognizing that these kids needed help transitioning into adulthood, Lemley enrolled in a public policy graduate program at the University of California, Berkeley, and with her classmate and “kindred spirit” Deanne Pearn, the women founded an organization in 1998 to provide that support. That organization is First Place for Youth in Oakland, California. The mission of First Place is to help foster kids build the skills they need to make a successful transition to self-sufficiency and responsible adulthood.
An estimated 30,000 adolescents ‘age out’ of the foster care system each year in the United States. When they attain the age of 18 or 21, depending on the state, they are no longer eligible to be in foster care. Some families, particularly those where the child has been with the family for a very long time and has assimilated well, may allow the young person to continue living with them even though they will no longer receive money from the state to help support the child, but that is the exception rather than the rule.
When children age out of foster care, they become ineligible to receive state assistance with housing, food, and medical care under the foster care system. The Child Welfare League of America reports that as many as 36% of foster youth who have aged out of the system become homeless, 56% become unemployed, and nearly half of former foster youth become incarcerated within two years. Less than half of emancipated youth who have aged out graduate from high school. And 77% of the young women reported a pregnancy, risking another generation reentering the system. Initially, Lemley and Pearn thought that if they could provide housing for the young people it would be enough to give them a leg up, but they quickly discovered that the needs were much greater. Some of the program’s participants could barely read, so they expanded the program to include educational and career services.
While other children can mature gradually, relying on their parents for emotional advice or a bit of extra cash, these youths are entirely on their own. First Place started with just four youths recently aged out of the system, and they provided critical housing and support around education, employment and financial literacy.
First Place has expanded and grown, now serving five Bay Area counties and the city of Los Angeles. They provide these transitional young people with their very first apartment, covering both the security deposit and the monthly rental fees. In addition, they help the young adults meet four main goals: find stable employment, locate housing that matches their income, complete two semesters of community college or a certificate program and, finally, achieve “healthy living,” which means avoiding arrests, unintended pregnancies and substance abuse.
“This program is not a handout; it is a hand up. What we’re doing is trying to help you understand and make choices so that you can provide for yourself. You have to meet us, if not halfway, at least 30 percent, and invest in your own future. Which I think is one of the reasons it’s such a big success: it depends on them.” – Sam Cobbs, CEO, First Place for Youth
The results speak for the success of the program. In 2016, the organization helped 1,405 former foster children. Upon leaving the program, 75% had secured their own stable homes, 96% had earned or were actively pursuing their high school diploma, 81% were employed and progressing toward self-sufficiency, and 81% were enrolled in a post-secondary program.
In 2012, Lemley and Pearn were instrumental in lobbying legislators to pass a law raising the age of emancipation from 18 to 21, giving foster youths an additional three years in the system to mature, finish their education and become ready for independence while still having a safety net. Today, 21 states have expanded the age of emancipation.
The organization continues to succeed, although Ms. Lemley left in 2004. She decided that her real place was in advocacy work. She has spearheaded the formation of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance, a coalition of 26 organizations protecting the community’s most vulnerable children. She currently serves as Children’s Policy Director for the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes. Her achievements are many and I have only so much time and space, but you can read more about her work in this article in YouthToday.
Ms. Pearn remained with First Place for Youth until just two months ago, when CEO Sam Cobbs made the following announcement:
“It is with mixed emotions that I am writing to let you know our Co-Founder and Vice President of Policy, Deanne Pearn, will be moving on from First Place for Youth at the end of this month, to be Executive Director of Contra Costa Interfaith Housing. It is hard to express just how much First Place will miss Deanne. We wish her all the best in her new role, where she will lead CCIH’s efforts in providing critical support to vulnerable populations in Contra Costa County.”
First Place for Youth is now well-established and helping some of the people who need help the most. This type of program is, no doubt, saving futures and even lives. Be sure to check out their website. And both Ms. Lemley and Ms. Pearn, though no longer with the organization, are still … good people doing good things. My hat is off to both of them, as well as to the organization they founded and the people who make it work. No one person can save the world, but as long as there are people like this who see a need and jump in to fill it, who have compassion for their fellow mankind, perhaps the world at least becomes a little better place.