“Everything I went through in foster care has been an experience that has helped shape me to the person that I am,” says Alexis Barries. “I’ve been exposed to many different homes with different rules and values, and I made the most out of it.”
Alexis first entered the foster care system at the age of two when both of her parents were incarcerated and faced life sentences. A year after incarceration, Alexis’s mom was killed in prison…
“I faced a lot of challenges growing up and my parents could not take care of me. After losing my parents we stayed with my grandmother when I was 8 years old. This was my first legal guardianship,” says Aja Dunlap.
Born in Sacramento, California, Aja entered the foster system when she turned 13 years old. “Transitioning into foster care was hard because I had been to 12 different schools and moved a lot. I had to deal with a lot of changes in my teenage years. Going to Church really helped–I didn’t let my situation define me.”
While attending high school, she was in multiple placements in foster care. Despite the challenges she faced, she deeply valued her education. Graduating from high school was important to her.
Through participating in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, she developed the skills she needed to be successful in college. AVID helped her navigate the college application process and learn how to file for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). “I felt school was a safe place and good environment that I was in. I am proud to be a first generation college student.”
Aja has been able to pursue higher education, while also advocating for foster youth and youth at the risk of becoming homeless. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, she helped write policy changes to California officials to protect the lives of foster youth.
“COVID-19 poses a special risk to children and youth in foster care, who are the legal dependents of the State of California,” the letter states. “While California’s response to COVID-19 is critical for all, children and youth in foster care uniquely rely on the public child welfare system to ensure their economic, emotional and educational well-being.”
Aja is now in her final year at California State University, Sacramento, pursuing a degree in criminal justice to ensure that other youth don’t fall through the cracks. The Guardian Scholars program has greatly helped her to stay on track. Looking to the future, she hopes to find a job in the criminal justice field.
In 2020, nothing has gone to plan. Whether it’s orange skies due to wildfires or public schools closed because of the pandemic, it has been one problem after another.
But for Christina Torrez, it wasn’t just 2020, it has been her whole life. Placed into foster care at six, Christina spent her young life bouncing around foster homes in the Central Valley. She was removed from her family due to neglect but suffered much more in foster care, experiencing physical abuse.
From placement to placement, Christina protected her sister, who was three years younger, serving as a young mother to her. Remaining with her sister made it harder to find a long-term foster care placement, but she never wavered in her commitment to remaining together.
At age 13, Christina returned to her father, where she lived for three years. She re-entered foster care at age 16, when she became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy little girl. Instead of supporting Christina, her father refused to pick her up from the hospital. She returned to foster care, where she would remain until she “aged out” five years later.
As Christina recounts, “It was terrible to grow up in the foster care system, being abused physically, mentally and emotionally and having parents that don’t want anything to do with you.”
It would be understandable if she simply gave up. But that’s not what Christina has done. Instead, her hardship has motivated her to make a better life for herself and her family, which has grown to include three children. “Having my kids drives me to do better. I want them to know they are loved, no matter what. I want them to feel safe, no matter what. I wish I’d had someone to tell me that I was safe. I don’t want them to go through foster care and see the evil and the ugliness.”
Christina is making this possible by striving educationally. She is a college student at Bakersfield College where she majors in business and minors in human services. She intends to complete her bachelor’s degree at California State University at Bakersfield. Her dream is to receive her master’s degree in business administration from Fresno State and use her skills to counter the negative message many young people in foster care receive.
“A lot of people think that they are going to fail.I was told I was not going to graduate because I was in foster care. I was told I was going to be a bum because I was in foster care.”
Christina wants people to understand that while foster youth face many challenges, they are not a lost cause; even small gestures make a difference for young people who are without support. “Yes, youth in foster care might have problems, but we can work on those problems as long as we have people to help us, people to say it’s ok, I am here to help. Not everyone has those people. Not a lot of foster youth have those people.”
Christina had a mentor named Katie who offered this kind of guidance during her most difficult times. She was in high school and living in a group home for young parents. “She came to me at a very low and volatile place. I was messing up a lot. Katie was the one to help me and talk to me. She helped me with my daughter and helped me buy my graduation dress, get into my first apartment.”
In addition to her mentor, Christina had the support of extended foster care and safe, affordable housing after she “aged out” of foster care at age 21. John Burton Advocates for Youth led the advocacy to establish extended foster care and has fought to strengthen it ever since. Most recently, John Burton Advocates for Youth advocated for an $8 million annual expansion to housing for former foster youth as well as a policy that will allow youth like Christina to maintain their financial aid, which is a lifeline for foster youth in college.
Christina worries about how foster youth are faring during the pandemic. She is glad that her sister can remain in foster care, but knows that even with this support, they are vulnerable. “I think that foster youth are more at risk during COVID than anyone else. They don’t know what the rights are. People are going to take advantage of the youth who don’t know what their rights are.”
For JBAY Youth Advocate Cody Van Felden, the question of “why” has lingered with her since she was a child. It was hard to understand the many difficult experiences she went through, including abuse, neglect and abandonment. “Growing up, I always wanted to ask the question why,” said Cody. “Why did everything happen to me the way that it did?”
Fortunately, Cody has found some answers in her work with John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY). “JBAY has given me that why. I get to use my experience to help other youth, so that they don’t fall through the cracks like I did.”
Cody has come a long way since the abuse and neglect that plagued her childhood. She grew up in Sacramento County, moving in and out of foster care until being adopted at age four. Despite joining a new family, she experienced abuse and neglect from her adoptive parents. She was later abandoned at age 16, resulting in her reentry into foster care.
Along with her personal battles at home, Cody struggled in high school. She confided in her school counselor, but instead of finding safety she was reported to the police, who labeled her as a troubled teen. “I always thought that the school is supposed to protect you when no one else can–but they did not.” Still, she remained determined enough to pass her classes and graduate.
Seeking to make a life for herself, Cody enrolled in Cosumnes River College (CRC) in Sacramento. While this was a step in the right direction, her troubles continued. She didn’t understand how to apply for financial aid and also lost her job, causing her to become homeless. While homeless, she constantly moved from one place to another and struggled to find reliable transportation to school and mental health providers.
Given her upsetting experience in high school, Cody was reluctant to ask for help again. She finally developed the courage to ask for help from teachers, counselors, and other support staff and the response was much more positive. “While everything around me was falling apart, school was the one thing that was constant. I felt at home with all the faculty at CRC. They checked in with me every week and cared about my success. That’s what kept me together.”
This positive response was due in part to NextUp, a specialized program JBAY worked to establish in 2016 on 45 community college campuses, including Cosumnes River College. JBAY is currently working with California State Senator John Laird to expand NextUp to all 116 community colleges and to advocate for $18 million in public support for California State University and University of California campuses.
With the assistance of her academic support team, Cody transferred to Sacramento State, majoring in psychology. Through her hard work and dedication, she completed three degrees and graduated with honors.
As a Youth Advocate at JBAY, Cody has helped advance important legislation to improve the financial and emotional well-being of former foster and homeless youth. Notably, she has helped JBAY secure funding for youth in California’s Homekey program, which funds the construction, acquisition and rehabilitation of housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. Thanks to Cody, JBAY successfully advocated for an eight percent set-aside in Homekey, which will provide $220 million to end homelessness among youth in California.
Cody also testified for Senate Bill 854, which would create trust fund (baby bonds) savings accounts for long-term foster youth and for children who have lost a parent to COVID-19. “Having money in an account that supports you, and that someone else cannot take advantage of, can change the lives of thousands of youth who are in foster care.”
Today, Cody looks back on her experience with a different perspective. She knows how to answer the question “why.” And when it comes to making a better, brighter future possible for young people who have been in foster care or homeless, the question that now comes to mind is “why not?!”
Since the age of five, Emmerald Evans, JBAY Youth Advocate and former foster youth, has lived in six different cities and attended 10 different schools. Over that decade, Emmerald moved throughout the Bay Area from San Jose to Oakland to East Palo Alto to San Francisco. Moving from city to city, Emmerald was never really able to experience a sense of belonging and home.
“One of the biggest things I wish I had going through the foster care system is consistency. You can’t grow without consistency and stabilization. There is no way that a person is going to find who they are when going from home to home,” said Emmerald. “Let alone be able open up and try to get help from someone they don’t even know…it really is about building relationships.”
During these multiple transitions, the only sense of consistency in Evan’s life was her attorney who she had from the age of 6 to 13.
“My attorney taught me how to advocate for my rights. He inspired me and I really look up to him,” said Emmerald.
It wasn’t until her senior year in high school that Emmerald started to think about applying to college. At the time, she was not even sure if she would be able to graduate from high school at all.
However, this changed once she participated in a program for foster youth in high school and learned about the A-G requirements for the California College system. At this time, Emmerald started taking school more seriously and decided to apply to college. She educated herself about the application process and completed everything on her own.
“Having financial aid literacy as well as support to get through all of the necessary steps in the process is vital. As a foster youth, not having the typical family background, I don’t have access to the types of resources that families typically provide like being able to live at home, having access to reliable transportation and of course getting financial support from family for educational costs like books, supplies, a computer and living expenses. This lack becomes even more challenging when a crisis like COVID-19 happens,” says Emmerald.
In order to ensure that other current and former foster youth have the support they need to advance their education, Emmerald has played a major role in advocating for SB 860, a bill that requires state-funded agencies to assist foster youth in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Testifying in support of SB 860 in front of the Senate Education Committee, Emmerald affirmed that the new law will allow foster youth to have a reliable support system to help them prepare for college despite the disadvantages that they may face. Thanks in part to her advocacy, Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed SB 860 which will be crucial in increasing access to higher education and the California College system among current and former foster youth.
“Because of my experience, I understand how much advocacy it takes,” said Emmerald.
Inspired by her attorney, Emmerald is pursuing her goals to become an attorney and advocate for foster youth who have faced similar obstacles. The exposure to legal work enlarged Emmerald’s passion for advocacy and inspired her to pursue a higher education in law after completing her degree at Sacramento State University. Along with her advocacy at JBAY, she is one of the founders of the youth advisory boards with the Seneca Family of Agencies, a small Bay Area residential and day treatment program that provides a broad continuum of permanency, mental health, education, and juvenile justice services. As of today, Seneca reaches over 18,000 youth and families throughout California and Washington State each year.
Reflecting on her long term dreams and goals, Emmerald shared that she would like to start a family, get married, and eventually buy a house of her own. She would also like to experience life outside of California and travel the world.
JBAY Youth Advocate Junely Merwin has faced barrier after barrier in her young life. But as each one has appeared, she has persevered and consistently persisted to build a life of stability for herself and her son.
Junely’s challenges started early. She was raised in Los Angeles by her mother and grandmother, who each suffered bipolar disorder. While they did their best to protect her, their household was chaotic and dysfunctional. When her grandmother passed away, she became homeless for a year and a half, along with her fraternal twin sister and younger brother.
During this stressful period, she became pregnant and dropped out of high school. After experiencing an erratic episode from her mother, she called the police, causing her to enter foster care at age 15 with her one-month-old son. Only then did she realize what mental illness was and how it had affected her family all throughout her upbringing.
In foster care Junely turned to education as a source of stability. “Foster care turned my life around when it came to academics. While so many things were out of my control, I knew that education was within my control.” Junely benefited from a state law that exempts foster youth from certain school district graduation requirements, allowing her to graduate from high school. As a teen parent, she was determined to create a better life for her son. “As a foster youth in the system, I felt like I was always stigmatized and seen under a microscope. I had no other choice but to be strong. I wanted to show that I was being a good example to my son.”
Junely enrolled in Cerritos College in Norwalk, California after graduating from high school. As in the past, she faced challenges. There were tensions between her and her foster parents and she struggled with a two-hour commute to take her son to child care. Amidst these challenges, she gained encouragement from others who helped her navigate college. “I’m really fortunate for people like my educational liaison Barbara Martinez who I met in my second foster home, who really took me under her wing.”
Junely earned a full-ride scholarship to Cal State Fullerton, but once again, a serious challenge came her way: this time it was housing insecurity. Junely was awarded a special housing voucher for former foster youth that provides affordable housing and supportive services for 36 months, but spent three months couchsurfing before she could secure an apartment. Once she had stable housing, she was able to focus on school again, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Human Services in May 2019.
In full circle, Junely works for a foster youth program in higher education serving the very population she came from. “Higher education saved my life and has been my outlet out of poverty and dysfunction.” This fall, she will return to Cal State Fullerton to pursue her Master’s degree in Higher Education. Junely looks forward to this next part of her journey.
Luz was brought to the U.S. by her father at age 14 from Honduras without authorization. Rather than attending school, she worked 12-hour shifts and gave every penny she earned to her father. According to Luz, “I worked two shifts every day, from 7 am to 7 pm in different bread companies and laundries. There were days that I would get really frustrated because I could not understand what other people were saying to me, and I could not respond, not even a word due to the language barrier. Despite the language barrier I sought help from a coworker who spoke English, who taught me the basics of English and phrases that could be used in my job. This was how I survived.”
After two years, Luz’s father returned to Honduras but did not bring her with him. Instead, she was 16 years old and alone and barely able to speak English in San Francisco. She entered foster care after a community member reported that a child was living in a park.
Instead of protecting her, foster care put her in harm’s way. “My foster parents, my first family, I suffered from abuse. I was the one who was cleaning the house. They only gave me one meal per day.” Luz reported the abuse to her social worker and she moved to another foster care placement where she received the help she was seeking.
“My foster parents enrolled me into school, and that day I felt that I had achieved one of the most important goals in life,” said Luz. “Going to high school without knowing English was a challenge, to say the least. My determination to pursue a college degree is largely due to the inspiring examples and unwavering support of my foster parents and my social worker.”
After aging out of care, however, her challenges returned. She became homeless and lived for a time in a garage where there was no heat, running water, or lock. She worried that her few possessions would be stolen and also that she would be attacked during the night as she slept.
Luz recalls her period of homelessness as the darkest in her young life. “I was moving from place to place every month. Being homeless not only affected my education but also me emotionally. I was alone.”
Throughout her hardships, she remained clear about her goals for the future and why she originally came to the United States, “When I came to the United States, I had the mentality to do something better, to go to school, to get educated and to have a better life.”
Luz stayed on that path, enrolling in City College of San Francisco and joining their Guardians Scholars Program. As a student, Luz benefited from textbooks provided by John Burton Advocates for Youth. She also was able to receive priority registration due to the successful advocacy of John Burton Advocates for Youth in providing it to foster youth across California.
According to Luz, “I was receiving a lot of support: money for my books, tutors, and priority registration. I went from having a 1.5 GPA to a 3.5 GPA. Programs such as the Burton Book Fund make a big difference in the performance of students.”
Luz’s circumstances improved further when she qualified for permanent, affordable housing in San Francisco, similar to the John Burton Advocates for Youth Housing Complex, where 24 former foster youth live. For Luz, permanent housing has given her the stability she has long sought, “I have permanent housing and that really changed my life.”
Luz’s progress continued as she transferred to San Francisco State University and graduated in May 2018. She has also since become a U.S. citizen. She credits John Burton Advocates for Youth for the important role it played in her journey to stability, both through the reforms it made to the foster care system as well as the hands-on support it provided through textbooks and an internship. While interning, Luz advocated for safe, affordable housing for former foster youth and improved comprehensive sexual health education for foster youth.
“As a child, I dreamed of being a different person than my family members. I wanted to be a person with goals. Through all my struggles and sacrifices, I have taught myself the value of a good education so I can pursue my dreams. Despite all my struggles and challenges, I am an unstoppable person. I hope to transform the foster care system into a better place, for people like myself.