Alex is a 24 year old student at Cal State Fullerton studying human services and business. He has two part-time jobs, one of which he works full time during breaks from school. He has stable housing through Orangewood’s Rising Tide transitional housing program. But finding and maintaining safe and affordable housing has been a struggle for Alex since he aged out of the foster care system at age 18.
Even though legal adulthood in the US begins at age 18, most Americans experience a transition period into independent adulthood that is supported financially and emotionally by our families. However, former foster youth, who age out of the system between age 18 and 21, don’t have this type of family support. This puts them at a higher risk for homelessness and housing insecurity (poor housing quality or unstable housing such as “couch surfing”). In fact, 11-37% percent of former foster youth experience homelessness after exiting the foster care system, and an additional 25-50% experience housing insecurity. Alex is one of these former foster youth who has struggled with housing insecurity.
Alex was placed into foster care along with his three siblings when he was five years old due to his mother’s drug use and neglect. The children were eventually reunited with their mother, but it wasn’t long before she started using again. The neglect returned with the drug use. “We would have food at the beginning of the month,” Alex remembers, “but the shelves were usually bare by the third week or so.” Alex tried to protect his mother and care for his siblings throughout his childhood. He lied to teachers and social workers about his mother’s drug use, and never let friends come over to his house. “I never let anyone get too close to me, because I didn’t want them to find out how we were living. I was trying to protect my mom.”
When Alex was 16, he and his siblings were removed once again from his mother’s care. Alex lived with an aunt for the next two years, but when he aged out of the foster care system at age 18, he was on his own. Since then, Alex has lived in five different places. “When you’re 18 years old and out on your own for the first time, you need more than just a roof over your head,” Alex explains. “You also need support and help figuring things out. I don’t think 18 is old enough to totally be on your own.”
After years of bouncing around between housing programs, rooms for rent, and living with relatives, Alex landed in Orangewood’s Rising Tide transitional housing program. Here, he says, he feels truly secure for the first time. He lives in an apartment with one roommate and has been there for almost four months. One of his sisters, who also attends Cal State Fullerton, lives in a separate apartment in the same building. The two spend time together watching movies or doing homework, and Alex says having her close by makes the apartment feel more like home. But the biggest difference for Alex is the support from Orangewood staff. “The staff are available as a resource, they help keep you on track, and they are always there to listen when you need someone to talk to,” Alex says. “I’m so used to bouncing around that it feels kind of weird to be settled into one place,” Alex says through laughter, “but it’s a good kind of weird.”
February is a great month to celebrate the loving and supportive relationships in your life. Over the past year, former foster youth Kim and her Orangewood Foundation mentor, Christine, have forged one of these great relationships.
Kim is a 17-year-old junior in high school who was placed into the foster care system for neglect. Kim was ultimately reunited with her mom but needed a little extra support to help her achieve her goals. She applied to the Orangewood mentor program and was matched with Christine.
“When I first met Kim,” Christine says, “she shared with me her goals and desires for her future. I was amazed how she was able to juggle a full high school schedule with college prep classes, play two varsity sports (water polo and swim) and play viola in the school orchestra with limited support.” Kim didn’t have a driver’s license and was riding her bike to school, practices and events. She wanted to get her driver’s license and was also interested in applying to colleges. “She was motivated to achieve her goals but she needed some assistance to navigate through the steps to accomplish these goals,” Christine explains.
As Kim and Christine started to work towards Kim’s goals, a solid bond began to form between them. Christine began attending Kim’s swim meets and water polo matches, helped her with her homework, and helped her put a plan in place for getting her driver’s license. As Kim started thinking about college, Christine joined her for meetings with her school guidance counselor and helped her decide what schools to apply to. “Christine has quickly become Kim’s greatest advocate and biggest fan,” says Orangewood Mentor Program Coordinator, Lucia. “I think she has been to every single one of her swim meets this year! Kim is not one to gush about things, but she has told me that she loves Christine and couldn’t imagine a better mentor.”
“Ever since I met Christine,” Kim says, “she has led me down a path that has opened my eyes to possibilities I never knew I had before. She has made me feel that dreams can come true through hard work and dedication.” With Christine’s help, Kim has gotten her driver’s license, decided on a business/human resource management focus for school, and has been accepted to three California State Universities, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona. “When I signed up to be an Orangewood mentor,” Christine says, “I imagined how much I would be able to impact someone’s life. What I didn’t imagine is how she would impact my life. She has humbled me and taught me what it really means to rise above all odds. I have developed a life-long relationship with this amazing young woman who has the best attitude, a kind heart, and a love of life. I look forward to sharing more adventures with her and to watching her continue to grow and achieve her dreams.”
Mychal doesn’t have many happy memories from his childhood Christmases. His mother struggled with alcoholism and Mychal and his older brother lived with their grandmother for most of his childhood. “I remember one Christmas when my mom realized we weren’t going to get any presents, she took all the money she had to the 99 cent store and got us each a couple of cheap toys. It doesn’t seem like much, but at the time it meant so much to us.” When their mother died, Mychal, 15 at the time, and his brother, 17, were placed into foster care. When they were released from the foster care system at 18, Mychal and his brother, with nowhere else to go, were immediately homeless.
Mychal was homeless for two and a half years after he aged out of the foster care system. It was during this time that he started coming to the Orangewood Resource Center. During this time, Resource Center staff helped Mychal get his GED and get a job that paid just enough for him to stay in a motel room with his girlfriend at the time.
While Mychal was still trying to get on his feet, he and his girlfriend had two children. When they eventually separated, his girlfriend was given custody of their children. But, not long after they separated, Mychal began noticing signs of abuse and neglect in his little girls. He knew that if he wanted to fight for custody he would need to get a stable job and secure housing. So Mychal turned to Resource Center staff for help. “Orangewood staff helped me get a steady job and find a place to live. But more than that, they motivated me and they never gave up on me. I can’t describe how much that meant… Everybody else in my life had always given up on me.”
Last year, Mychal and his wife Sharnett were awarded full custody of his two girls, six-year-old Stacy and four-year-old Shanell. The family rents a two bedroom condo and Mychal’s life is devoted to being a good father. Despite working two jobs, sometimes even 20 hour days, Michael still needs help around the holidays. Last year, gifts from Orangewood’s holiday drive helped him make his first Christmas together with Stacy and Shanell memorable. When he describes last Christmas, Mychal’s face lights up. “We had saved up to buy this little plastic Christmas tree, and I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to get any presents to put under it. Orangewood made sure that didn’t happen. When I got done piling all the gifts from Orangewood under that tiny tree, you could barely even see the top of the tree. The look on my girls’ faces on Christmas morning…I can’t even describe it.”
We asked Mychal what he would say to all of our generous donors and volunteers who help us make our holiday gift drive possible. “I can’t even explain how much your donations mean…how much your support means. What you’re doing may seem small but to someone like me, it means the world. The joy on my daughters faces on Christmas morning means everything to me.”
The holiday season can be especially tough for current and former foster youth. Kathryn and her family are no exception. When Kathryn was just six years old, she and her four siblings were removed from their parents and placed in foster care. The family didn’t have much money, and all seven shared a studio apartment. Kathryn’s father had anger issues and was physically abusive to their mother. “The sound of my mother sobbing would often wake me up in the middle of the night,” Kathryn says. The abuse finally stopped when her oldest sister Julie called the police.
Kathryn’s mother eventually regained care of Kathryn and her siblings, but this family history dimmed the usual shine of the holiday season for Kathryn’s family. “After we were reunified, my mom tried to celebrate Christmas by putting up a tree and decorating but it wasn’t the same anymore. Because we spent the holidays apart the year my parents got divorced and my siblings and I entered foster care, the ideal family holiday was shattered for us,” Kathryn explains. “I remember as a child, I would love sitting in the car while my mom ran errands and staring at other family’s Christmas lights and decorations.”
The only Christmas presents Kathryn and her siblings received growing up were from Orangewood Foundation. To this day, her family does not celebrate holidays. Today, with Orangewood’s financial assistance and guidance, Kathryn is a senior at UCLA, majoring in Asian Studies with a double minor in Global Health and Korean. She celebrates the holidays with her friends from school in lieu of celebrating with family.
Kathryn is grateful to Orangewood and gives back when she can, including working as a Peer Mentor so she can help youth who are going through the same things she did when she was younger. “I am so thankful to Orangewood for all the support they have given me to help me get to where I am today. Orangewood Foundation is a blessing, not just during the holidays, but all year long.”
Breanna’s life has been filled with violence, abuse, drugs and alcohol since she was a child. Her mom died of melanoma when Breanna was just seven. She doesn’t really remember her mom. Instead, she remembers trips to the hospital and being abused by her stepdad. After her mom died, Breanna lived with her stepdad, who continued to abuse and neglect her. “I was always hungry and there was never any food in the house. And I had to wear my stepbrother’s clothes to school because I didn’t have any clothes of my own,” Breanna says.
At age nine, Breanna was taken from her stepfather’s care and placed at the Orangewood Children and Family Center. She was then placed with an uncle who was a drug addict and an alcoholic, and ended up back in foster care at age 13. As a teenager, she lived on the streets. She went to seven different high schools and dropped out in the 10th grade. When she turned 18 and was released from the foster care system, Breanna met a man and things moved very quickly. “I just wanted a normal life,” she explains. “I wanted to be loved.” Breanna got married at age 19, had two children in the next few years, and was divorced by age 23. Her next relationship, with a man she met online, was an abusive one. They had a child together, and Breanna stayed with him for four years. Eventually, Breanna’s children were taken from her by Child Protective Services.
When she got pregnant with her fourth child, Breanna realized she couldn’t live this way any longer. She moved into a homeless shelter for pregnant women and worked diligently to turn her life around. She regained 50% legal custody of her two older children, graduated from high school, and got a paralegal certificate from Irvine Valley College. But once she had her fourth child, she could no longer stay at the shelter. “I found myself facing homelessness again,” she says, “this time with my kids.” Although she thought she might be too old to qualify for Orangewood’s programs, she called anyway, and told us her story.
Today Breanna is living in one of our Rising Tide transitional housing apartments and is attending a local community college. She is three years sober, and is working towards her dream of becoming a lawyer. She has recently been accepted as a Peer Mentor and is looking forward to giving back to teens in the foster care system. When asked to describe Orangewood Foundation in one word, she immediately says, “Hope.” She expands, “When I was younger, I ran from help. But the need for help for foster youth doesn’t always have a time limit. Now, because of Orangewood, I’m serious about creating a future for my children and myself. I’m set up for success.”