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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Youth Foster Resource Center Devoted To Teaching Life Sklls For a Better Tomorrow

A glass jar of some sand is placed before the foster youth. Next to it lie a pile of rocks and small stones. “What do I do next?” he asks. Clang. Clang. Clang. The rocks tumble into the glass jar. He continues this process with the small stones. He then tries to close the jar only to find that it wouldn’t close. Mouth wide opened and eyes enlarged, he watches as the next foster youth succeeds in the same task. Looking at the jar before him he notices that the sand has been left out. The sand symbolizes the unnecessary, whereas the stones represent small daily tasks and the rocks embody long term goals. This icebreaker is an introduction into today’s Independent Living Program (ILP) workshop of time management held by Orangewood Children Foundation. OCF is a foundation built upon improving the lives of foster youth in Orange County through its Orangewood Children Home and resource center by providing over 1000 neglected, physically, sexually, or emotionally abused children refuge.

The workshop officially begins at 6:30 P.M. There are 6 different tables and a different activity relating to time management is assigned to each table. The tables consist of two peer mentors in which one will rotate while the other stays. Our first task is to jot down the things we needed to finish. Another includes a crossword puzzle with terms involving the topic of time management. During one activity I let out a slight smile as the peer mentor questioned the amount of time each person uses on the phone. “I see you smiling, want to explain why?” she asks me. I tell her that I’m often on the phone because I’m in a long distance relationship. However, the girl next to me with a face full of make up and often chatting away with her neighbor gave an opposite answer of me. “I don’t feel the need to use the phone at all. It’s unnecessary.”

As the workshop continues, peer mentor, Wilson reminds the foster youth to keep all of their worksheets from today as proof of attending the workshop to earn their 30 OCF dollars. OCF dollars are often used to make purchases for clothing, food, or household items. Head of ILP, Jessica reminds the foster youth that OCF dollars should be best used to pay rent, phone bills, and school tuition. Another option that the foster youth have is to put it into their savings. Although, the amount of OCF dollars earned belongs to the foster youth but peer mentors have the ultimate control over it. Whenever these foster youth would like to use their OCF dollars they must notify their peer mentor. It is okay for foster youth to spend their OCF dollars on favorable things such as shoes, but only when there are no bills or rent waiting to be handled. Peer mentors usually step up and remind or advise the foster youth to spend their OCF dollars wisely.

Although, one workshop only gives up to 30 OCF dollars but to these foster youth the amount is sufficient enough for their survival. Piter, a tall dark former foster youth of German descent is an example of this. Based on the financial aid from OCF and his savings of OCF dollars he is able to pay for his college tuition at the Art Institute of Santa Ana. He is currently trying to pursue an AA degree in computer science and computer graphic website design.

Piter is 19 and has been in the foster youth system since 11 months old. He's been kicked out of about every school district that he’s attended. In doing so, he’s moved around a total of 8 times all around Southern California. To name a few, Los Angeles, Valencia, Anaheim, Corona Del Mar, Trabuco Canyon. Yet, the Piter sitting before me is clam and mellow, but as he explains during ILP’s break, this was not always the case. Piter warns me about the person he once was.

“You would run. You SHOULD run. If I didn’t like you, I would whoop your ass for the first time.”

At the age of 11 Piter received his first misdemeanor due to assault and battery.

“She said something I wasn’t in the mood, I kind of jumped up and punched/kicked her in the face. That was the first, I was 11. The second time was on the therapist, he was trying to settle me down but I got up and started whomping on his face that was strike two. The last one was one of the teachers, I did the same thing. I’ve known him and he knew me because of my history. He said something that kind of touched me so he gave me a chance to work my anger off and that would’ve been my third strike if I didn’t work it off.”

The first offense landed Piter in Juvenile hall for 2 1/2 weeks and the second, 3 months. If he didn’t work things off then, he would now be sitting in jail for at least 20-25 years.

In the end, Piter chose to work his anger off by putting himself in a more controlled environment, such as teaching martial arts. From his chance to work things off he also understood another thing. “I understood people were afraid of me, it was whatever but as time passed by and I grew up I started feeling lonely and wanted to be accepted.”

When asked about his impressions of Orangewood, he replies, “ At first, all of the kids hate being directed and having criticisms against them but when it comes straight down to it, it really helps. Sure, at the remainder of the time it seems like they’re trying to control you. Even for myself, at first I didn’t like being control but now that I look back on it, it was a good experience for me.”

With the resources provided by Orangewood, Piter was not only able to make a ton of friends, but also gathered important life long skills. Before the break ended Piter makes a few final remarks.

“My mom suffers from schizophrenia, dyslexia and some other things. I, myself suffer from depression and mood disorders. It doesn’t hold me back, it keeps me moving forward. For the physical aspect of it all, even though people go through abuse and stuff doesn’t entirely mean they should live by it. Like with me, I was one of the worst kids possible.”

Piter and the many other foster youth of the OC are considered to be very lucky. They are provided with resource centers such as Orangewood to help them through the process of emancipation, while in other counties it is the opposite.

Peer mentor, Wilson is originally from L.A. county. He states that "L.A. county is not as helpful. Things were a little more ruthless, more crime rate. OC is more wealthy. Orangewood home looks like a paradise compared to L.A. We had nothing but crappy bunk beds. In L.A., we had to cut their lawns whereas, people in the OC pay people for cutting their lawns for them."

In Wilson’s situation he was left to fend for himself the minute he was placed into L.A.’s foster care. At age 12, his father burned his mother to death. When the incident happened Wilson’s father was unemployed, an alcoholic and a gambler. He thought that his wife (Wilson’s mother) was cheating on him and being religiously Buddhist, he went to a fortune teller to seek an answer. The fortune teller informs him that there is a possibility and from his words alone, Wilson’s father committed the homicide, as“revenge.” Aside from the murder, his father was also physically abusing his grandparents and because of this they booted him out prior to the murder. Wilson is then put into his grandparents’ custody after his mother’s death, but not for long. Several months later his grandpa fell ill due to the idea of losing his only daughter and the inability to protect his wife. He passed away and that left Wilson in the hands of L.A. county’s foster care. However, things there weren’t so great there either for Wilson.

“Right when I went to foster care that’s when things kind of went up and down. I did well academically, but at one point I didn’t feel recognize. After feeling not so accepted by everyone I went into this tangent to try to make it on my own. I did mischievous things that I’m not so proud of to survive and got incarcerated throughout the year. My first incarceration was because of grand theft auto. One day, I finally gave up because no one acknowledged the grades I was getting to pursue a college degree. I jacked the car of the foster home that I was living in as my last words to them.”

While on the freeway, Wilson eventually blacked out because of all the turmoil he was going through and crashed. He woke up in the hospital thinking he was dead, but he wasn’t. For about half of the duration that year he went “AWOL.” AWOL is when a foster youth runs away from the foster home and refuses to be found. Deanna Johnston, Orangewood Resource Center Supervisor warns me that those that go AWOL at or after the age of 18 are considered “improperly emancipated.” This means that they are automatically emancipated and lose the benefits that come with those being properly emancipated. However, if they were to return anytime before their 18th birthday they will be eligible for a proper emancipation and Orangewood will help them through that.

When Wilson went AWOL for half a year he was living on the streets for about 2 weeks and often couch-surfing. He describes the streets of L.A. to be “filthy” and the experience as being very different because he went from having something to nothing at all.

“One night, I was trying to sleep under some tunnel so the cops don’t see me because I was underage (a sophomore in high school). Since I was underage I had to make sure that by nightfall I was away from the cops, hiding in parks, under covers, tunnels, whatever, and so the cops don’t see me. Yeah, even though I was wearing several layers of clothes, but it’s not enough. The streets were very cold.”

As for couch-surfing, it involves a whole different strategy.

Wilson explains, “I was moving from home to home of friends. They helped me during the day, but I had to find somewhere to sleep at night so I’d alternate. I had to shift around so parents aren’t asking why the heck is this kid sleeping here everyday?”

Eventually, Wilson found a suitable home a year later after he turned himself in for awolling. Even then, he slept with a pocket knife under his pillow for 6 months. Trust was something that Wilson was very cautious about no matter how genuine his foster father seemed.

“There are good foster parents out there but I wasn’t lucky until then,“ states Wilson.

When a youth is placed in foster care it is basically a matter of luck. Although, social services conduct background checks prior to placing foster youth, but it is hard to predict future events. DeAnna tells me that it is common for foster youth to be placed in more than 8 different homes throughout their lives. In the end some choose to AWOL whereas, others decide to emancipate. Whatever the story is behind each foster youth, with resource centers like Orangewood the survival skills obtained replaces the lack of love from one’s immediate family. These survival skills open pathways for a better tomorrow.

DeAnna informs me that when most foster youth turn 18 they have this mentality that “I’m 18 and you don’t get to tell me what I can or can’t do.” Usually, these foster youth believe that they’ll finish their diploma later in life but the majority of cases don’t occur so. In addition, DeAnna often implements the importantance of the word “resource” in Orangewood Resource Center. She begins by first clearing up the misconception of foster youth as being “too old” to stay in the system.

“There is one misconception out there and that is at age 18 the system says boom your done and they kick you out, but that’s not entirely true. When a youth is approaching their 18th birthday, there is a group within social services that kind of comes around and helps them emancipate.”

Emancipation is when foster youth transition into adulthood, officially leaving the foster care system. Orangewood gathers that about 200-300 foster youth emancipate every year at the age of 18, but 65% of those emancipated are without a home in California. To prevent situations like these, Orangewood offers ILP ILP workshops such as time management. These workshops occur several times a month focusing on four key areas including, education, career, relationships, and daily living. “Independent City” is also another ILP workshop that exposes foster youth to the challenges found in real life. Independent city is an event held at Irvine’s “Pretend City” where foster youths rotate from one station to another with the assistance of their peer mentors. Each station focuses on various life skills. It can include something as simple as calculating the amount of money needed for gas or to something as complex as managing a checkbook.

Another benefit that the foster youth of Orangewood are eligible for is known as “Rising Tide Transitional Housing Program.” Rising tide are opened to emancipated foster and probation youth ages 18 and up. The goal is to help foster youth transition to being on their own. However, prior to the eligibility foster youth must go through a rigorous interview process to make sure that rising tide fits them. Rising Tide is successful because it follows a certain set of procedures. The first month of rent is $200 and increases $50 every 3 months until they reach $750. The point is to ease them into what they’re looking at when they pay rent of their own. In “Rising Tide” they’re also encouraged to work or go to school. The RA living there are OCF’s employees put there to help the foster youth with “budgeting” and finding resources. For example, if the toilet is overflowing, the youth is often advised by the RA to call a certain person but they’re completely on their own from there. “They’re not there to rescue the kids but to show the youth what to do. They have to obey the law of the complex and the rules of rising tide. Two of the goal of rising tide is when the youth of rising tide emancipated they will have 10,000 in savings and maybe purchase a car. The RA is all up in their financial business, to help them. When they leave, they get a certain chunk of change that is a part of the rent they put out there.”

OCF also offers various other programs such as “Children’s Trust Fund.” Children Trust Fund is basically a designated amount of financial aid that each foster youth receive based on their age group. When asked what is the hardest part of her job as supervisor of Orangewood Resource Center, DeAnna states that “it is to remember that these foster youth are self-determining individuals, keeping in mind that my main job is to help without making judgments.”

1 1/2 hour lengthy interview with DeAnna Johnston
15 minutes brief interview with Piter
35 minutes interview with Wilson
3 hours of observation at ILP workshop
1 1/2 observation of O-Wood

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