The Youth We Help

JBAY helps young people in a variety of ways. Through our advocacy, we are improving policies and expanding public funding for young people across the state. JBAY’s technical assistance and training teaches local practitioners how to implement policy changes for maximum impact. Finally, JBAY operates the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund, which provides direct financial support to over 1,600 youth annually across California. Learn more about how our work is helping youth in the profiles below.

Read Our Youth Profiles

Andwele Umar Zakee always knew that he was destined for college. “It was always part of the plan. I was always going to go to college,” he recalls. A Los Angeles native, Andwele spent the past few years living with cousins before entering foster care during his junior year of high school after losing access to stable housing. None of that was going to stop him from pursuing a degree.

With a keen eye for fashion, U.C. Berkeley’s business program was the perfect fit for Andwele, who hopes to begin a career in fashion marketing. He applied and was admitted, receiving his financial aid award shortly thereafter. He quickly learned that the financial aid offered by the university failed to fully address how expensive college is for foster youth like him.

Thanks to a two-year, $250,000 dollar grant provided by The Kresge Foundation, John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) is exploring and addressing the challenges that homeless and foster care youth in California encounter as they attempt to afford higher education with few financial resources.

As his freshman year got into full swing, Andwele became familiar with these challenges. Even though Andwele received a robust financial aid award that helped to cover the nearly $50,000 per year it costs to attend U.C. Berkeley, once on campus and attending classes, he quickly learned that his award didn’t factor in the many necessary expenses his other classmates might have covered by their families.

“There are things that I needed such as technology that is required for classes. I have one class that requires a laptop or iPad. Other things that didn’t come up [included] laundry costs and books that were more expensive than I thought they were going to be,” he said. To cover some of these expenses, Andwele tapped $3,500 he earned while working through high school and another $2,500 he received through external scholarships. When asked about his costs, he says “I thought everything was going to be covered but it wasn’t.” Luckily, the Berkeley Scholars Program covered the cost of his iPad, but the other day-to-day expenses fell on Andwele.

Foster youth like Andwele shoulder the burden of the increasing and often invisible costs of attending college. Facing a lack of financial resources, foster youth must rely on working multiple jobs or taking on student loan debt to cover the difference between the financial aid they receive and the financial needs they have.

According to Debbie Raucher, Education Director at JBAY, there is much work to be done. “As costs rise for everything from technology to books, foster youth are facing an uphill battle as their expenses continue to pile up while their financial aid doesn’t accurately reflect their needs, putting higher education further and further out of reach. With this new funding from The Kresge Foundation, JBAY aims to correct that.”

Christina Alvarado is gearing up to walk across the graduation stage this December to receive her bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Sonoma State. Getting to this moment wasn’t easy.

Christina entered the foster care system as a young child after experiencing homelessness.

She was separated from her brothers and faced an uncertain future. She was eventually adopted, but her brothers’ foster family moved across the country, causing Christina to feel isolated.

Christina recalled her relationship with her brothers. “We were attached and we tried to stay in contact. Then a few years ago, they moved across the country which took a toll on me and my mental health.” She said.

The upheaval of her childhood and separation from her siblings made the decision to pursue college difficult.

She recalls, “I was kind of always anxious that I would fall into [my parents’] paths.”

After a visit from Sonoma State to her high school and encouragement from her teachers, she chose to enroll.

“My major is Sociology and right now, I’m working with kids as a Behavior Specialist. My experience growing up led me to pursue my major and want to help other people around me.”

In September, Christina’s plans were upended when she had to cut her hours at work due to strict curfew rules that accompanied her housing. Unable to afford rent and necessities, she moved five hours away, putting all of her hard-won progress in jeopardy.

JBAY was there to lend the helping hand she needed.

Christina received financial support from JBAY’s Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to bridge the gap when things got tough. She recalls, “During that time, money was very minimal, so I couldn’t pay for food or groceries or school supplies….” With JBAY’s assistance covering some of these necessities, Christina was able to focus on moving back toward school and staying on track for graduation.

Christina explained that one of the biggest ways JBAY helped her was by knowing that people actually care. “I feel like it showed that there are people out there to support people like me who have been through what I’ve been through in the system and with homelessness.”

JBAY’s Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund provides direct assistance to youth facing emergencies like Christina’s. Since July, JBAY has provided assistance to 192 youth who were in foster care or experienced homelessness to cover expenses like housing, food, clothing, schoolbooks and transportation. This number will reach 1,100 by June of 2024.

When asked what she would like others to know about her experience, she says:

“Not all of us have the support that most people have when it comes to education and financial needs. Programs like JBAY’s is a huge factor in continuing our education because it allows us that one little piece of financial support, whether that’s getting books for class, or getting something to eat for the day.”

To learn more about the JBAY Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund, click here.

Christopher Holt has big dreams for his future. He knows what it takes to build a recipe for success; he is just missing some important ingredients. Like many transition-age youth who have been in foster care, Christopher is navigating school and trying to find housing on his own, without the support of an extended family.

Christopher is a student in his final year in Los Angeles Harbor College’s Culinary Arts program. He recently received $500 from John Burton Advocates for Youth’s Burton Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to help him secure permanent housing after he completes the program.

Christopher was born and raised in Lancaster, California. As a young child, his parents were largely absent; his mother dealt with an alcohol and drug addiction, and his father was incarcerated. When they were no longer able to properly care for his needs, he entered foster care at four years old. From then on until age 18, he stayed in various foster care placements, occasionally returning to visit his birth parents. At age 18, he moved into transitional housing and enrolled in community college.

As a child, Christopher always cherished the moments in which he and his parents were able to be fully present together. In particular, he found solace in cooking, and the lasting bond that it brought between them.

Chris discovered this Culinary Arts program through his social worker, and decided that this was the right path for him. Though he is currently in stable transitional housing, he is aware that this will soon no longer be an option for him, and that he needs to plan accordingly. “I am grateful that this funding from JBAY will help me apply for an apartment after graduating. Housing can be hard to find, but this money definitely eases my concerns moving forward.”

After completing his Associate’s degree, Christopher plans to start his first professional job in a culinary setting, where he can gain experience serving an array of customers and learning about how to manage a business. Eventually, he wants to acquire a business degree and open his own restaurant.

One thing Christopher will always appreciate about his relationship with his parents was their mutual love for cooking. Amidst a turbulent childhood, his safe space was in the kitchen. This sense of security is what has motivated him to pursue his college and career goals. Thanks to JBAY’s financial assistance, he is now better equipped with the ingredients he needs to achieve these goals.

California’s historic winter storm wreaked havoc across the state, including the family student housing of Elizabeth Clews, former foster youth and youth advocate at John Burton Advocates for Youth.

After a day of torrential rain, Elizabeth’s lights went off, leaving her in darkness together with her two small children. Hours passed and she waited… still no electricity.

After 12 hours, Elizabeth heard from administrators at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) that her electricity would be out for several days, leaving her and her young family without a way to cook food, take showers or use her computer for college courses. Classes had started just a few days prior and Elizabeth worried that without these essentials, her Spring term at UCSC would be off to a shaky start.

Fortunately, Elizabeth received assistance from JBAY’s Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund. Within hours of her request, she received $500 to help pay for a hotel room. “I was so scared. I had just paid my rent and didn’t have money for a hotel. I felt so thankful to get this help. It saved the day.”

As a former foster youth, Elizabeth didn’t have a large network of family to turn to in a time of need. For young adults in her position, the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund has been a lifeline.

Schye Bell is with the Guardian Scholars Program at San Jose State University, which works with JBAY to distribute assistance to students with lived experience in foster care. She has seen first-hand the impact of the program. “JBAY has been a guiding light for the work I am so passionate about. Their team has been very welcoming and supportive, and I am thankful to have such a dedicated organization to collaborate with.”

Since the program launched in July 2022, the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund has assisted 803 youth who were formerly in foster care or homeless. These young people are from every corner of California, and have used this flexible assistance to address an urgent need, as in the case of Elizabeth, or to make an opportunity possible.

JBAY Executive Director Amy Lemley estimates the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund will assist over 1,600 youth by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. “We all need help. I am glad that JBAY can offer assistance and help young people stay on track, so that a small hiccup doesn’t derail their hard-won progress.”

Rocky Dove knew that he wanted to pursue higher education, but there were obstacles that stood in his way. For him, entering foster care gave him the resources to build the future that he wanted. Along the way, John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) has helped him overcome one of those obstacles.

Rocky is a student in his first year at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He recently received $400 from JBAY’s Burton Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to help him cover the cost of food and groceries.

Rocky’s path was not always a clear one. Growing up in San Diego County, Rocky experienced family troubles that impacted his mental health and affected his academic performance. It became very intimidating for him to attend his local high school, which had a large number of students. At age 15, he decided to transition to an online school and live with his paternal grandmother. Though he no longer had the stressors that came with a traditional school environment, he still had to deal with family conflicts while trying to focus on his studies.

Rocky entered foster care at age 17 and stayed at a temporary shelter for children in need before aging out of the system when he turned 18. During this time, he made education his priority.

While in foster care, he completed online school a semester early and enrolled right away in community college. Rocky’s experience in foster care further emboldened him to value his education. “It was the first time in my life that I was regarded positively and felt accepted without judgment. I already knew that I wanted to go to college. With the support of my social workers, I was able to do what I had planned.”

With this new support system, he also gained access to transitional housing for foster youth, allowing him to live in a studio apartment rent-free until age 21. Although he has been receiving CalFresh and other forms of assistance, it’s still a challenge at times to meet everyday needs. “In general, food is very expensive. I don’t like thinking about how much I spend on groceries,” he says. With the help of JBAY, he’ll be able to take a break from thinking about these costs and remain focused on his studies.

Rocky is now majoring in philosophy and cognitive science at UCSD, which has one of the top-ranked departments in the country. In the future, he is interested in pursuing graduate school and specializing in the field. As life continues to throw obstacles in his path, he feels confident that he will stay on track and achieve the goals that he has set for himself. With JBAY’s support, he has one less obstacle.

For many foster youth, the path to higher education is like navigating a completely foreign language. Thanks to JBAY, Allyson Olivas has become more fluent in this aspect of her life.

Allyson is a student at Hartnell College in Salinas. She recently received $100 from the Burton Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to help her purchase books and other school supplies.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) established the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to help young people like Allyson. This year, the program will provide direct financial assistance to an estimated 1,000 young people who have been in foster care or experienced homelessness.

Born in Salinas, Allyson entered foster care at the age of 13. She became pregnant and then hopped back and forth between different group homes in Watsonville and Redwood City. Thinking about her future, she made the difficult decision to have an abortion. “It was hard having to take care of myself, especially since I was so young. How was I going to take care of someone else?”

Above all else, Allyson wanted to focus on her education. Although the group homes she stayed in were often disruptive environments, she remained motivated to succeed in school. Most importantly, she knew that she needed to communicate with her teachers and do her homework–so that’s what she did. She graduated high school with a 3.6 GPA and earned the Student of the Year award.

Going into community college, she had no idea what programs were offered, or which ones she was qualified for. After taking initiative and doing her own research, she enrolled as an English and Spanish double major, finding interest in learning how to effectively communicate across both languages.

The Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund helped Allyson stay on top of her classes. “My financial aid and scholarships are split between the fall and spring semesters, and sometimes it takes a while to receive the money. This funding allowed me to get immediate help to pay for  books and supplies.”

Allyson plans to graduate in December and then transfer to California State University, Monterey Bay in the spring of 2023. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she hopes to work as a translator, ideally at the Monterey County Superior Court or at local clinics.

With her fluency in two languages, and also in higher education, she looks forward to helping others in need and breaking down barriers of communication in the future.

Imani Gordon is a student at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill in Contra Costa County. He recently received $200 from the Burton Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to help him obtain school supplies as a game design major.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) established the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to help young people like Imani. This year, the program will provide direct financial assistance to an estimated 1,000 young people who have been in foster care or experienced homelessness.

After entering foster care at birth, Imani lived with his grandmother in San Francisco until she became too elderly to take care of him, and then moved to Antioch to live with his current foster parents at the age of 15. As a foster youth, he quickly learned to become independent. During high school, he strived to work hard, proving to himself that he could overcome the odds and set himself up for success in adulthood. Looking back, though, he questions why he had put so much pressure on himself.

“I think I grew up way too fast. I didn’t get to have a normal childhood like other kids did,” says Imani. At times, it was hard for him to avoid feeling resentful toward his upbringing.

Fortunately, he had the help of a close mentor, who helped guide him through these challenges and introduced him to various paths that he could take following high school.

After taking a year off, Imani started Diablo Valley College, but did not know what he wanted to study. Eventually, he secured a job that he liked at GameStop, which compelled him to pursue game design as a field. As he took classes and worked part-time, he did start feeling stressed about paying bills for his car, phone, and other belongings. Over time, through his job, he not only discovered a clear passion but learned the value of personal money management.

At the start of every semester, Imani compiles a list of supplies that he would need for his classes. In the past, he has used financial aid or spent his own money to get supplies, including high quality drawing materials for his art studio class and a new camera for his photography class.

The Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund will allow him to purchase specialized items like these that may not otherwise fit in his usual budget, and he will be better able to stay engaged and excel in the classes for his major. “This funding will really help me,” he says. “I’m glad that the cost of school supplies is one thing I won’t need to worry as much about anymore.”

Imani hopes to complete his Associate’s degree in 2023 and then transfer to UC Berkeley, where he can continue working towards his career goals in the gaming industry.

Maria Rocha is a student at Los Angeles City College. She recently received $120 from the Burton Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to help her pay for internet services.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) established the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to help young people like Maria. This year, the program will provide direct financial assistance to an estimated 1,000 young people who have been in foster care or experienced homelessness.

The path to higher education has been a long and precarious one for Maria, requiring tenacity each step of the way. After entering foster care at birth, her grandmother returned from Mexico and adopted her at the age of 5. Three years later, she moved to Mexico, where she stayed with her biological family until the age of 17.

In Mexico, her family struggled financially and at age 17 Maria decided that she would return to the U.S. to find a job. Despite facing homelessness in Los Angeles, Maria was able to work three jobs to make ends meet. At age 19, she gave birth to her daughter. Now a mother herself, Maria had twice the motivation to stabilize her life and provide economic security for her family.

She enrolled in community college and struggled to learn English. Through a work study position, Maria was referred to the Guardian Scholars program, a specialized program for foster youth that provides academic, social and financial support.

“Everyone there went out of their way to check up on me and give me advice,” she says. “My tutor didn’t just teach me how to write an essay; he showed me how to write my own story. He also introduced me to poetry and made me love literature. He took me beyond what I thought I could do.”

Maria now feels inspired by seeing other former foster youth overcome their obstacles and graduate. “The fact that we’re here proves that we are strong and resilient. The only things missing are the resources that everyone else has.”

According to Maria, this lack of material support is one reason why the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund is important. “It might not be a lot of money, but it’s a lot to me. In an emergency, I don’t know who I would call. As someone who doesn’t have anyone, it’s just very meaningful.”

Maria will complete her Associate’s degree in psychology next year. In the future, she plans to earn her Bachelor’s degree and pursue a Master’s degree in social work. She is also interested in becoming a director for the Guardian Scholars program, giving back to the community that helped her stay connected in college.

Can $147 make a difference? According to former foster youth Eliza Aguilar, it most certainly can. Eliza is a student at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area. She recently received a grant of $147 from the Burton Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund.

Eliza used the funds to pay for the rising cost of gas so that she could get herself to and from doctor’s appointments. She was out of work after her recent brain surgery, which successfully removed a tumor from her pituitary gland.

“Every little bit helps”, she says. “You think it’s not a big deal, but in reality it all adds up. There’s always something that can make your finances go in the wrong direction, that’ll prevent you from getting where you need to go whether it be appointments, school, work, whatever”.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) established the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund to help young people like Eliza. This year, the program will provide direct financial assistance to an estimated 1,000 young people who have been in foster care or experienced homelessness, to pay for unanticipated critical needs and to provide opportunities to develop and enhance their natural talents, which often remain undiscovered. JBAY is working to raise $250,000 to support the fund.

Within the child welfare system, Eliza’s circumstances were surprisingly common. Removed from her biological parents at the age of three, she was later adopted. Unfortunately, she re-entered the system at around age 14 and became homeless at age 17.

Once homeless, Eliza lived on the street and struggled to regain her footing. After several years, Eliza made the decision that she no longer wanted to be unhappy. Determined to get her life together, she got a job and enrolled in school at Diablo Valley College.

Today, Eliza is studying social science, taking a few classes per year while working to support herself. Setbacks, including her recent surgery, have made it necessary to postpone her graduation date. Nevertheless, she is looking forward to graduating with her Associate’s degree and is considering transferring to Cal State East Bay.

“Eliza teaches all of us lessons in determination, resilience and perseverance”, says Amy Lemley, JBAY Executive Director. “We are excited about the Critical Needs and Opportunity Fund and the difference it can make for young people, like Eliza, across California.”

What Eliza wants people to know about being a former foster youth and homeless is that people can be more compassionate, understanding that something so small to someone can be something so big to someone else.

“A little bit really does go a long way” says Eliza. “Any amount of assistance that I can get for being a former foster youth, I’m so appreciative of because it relieves so much stress.”