Recent UC Berkeley alums help youngsters transition from foster care to adulthood

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- Each year, approximately 25,000 youths get kicked out of the nation's foster care system simply because they've turned 18 years old.

Many are left curbside with little more than a bag of belongings. Most lack life skills, financial support, high school diplomas and a stable place to live. Before long, many are in trouble with the law, pregnant, homeless or on welfare.

A year-old program started in Oakland by two recent alumnae of the University of California, Berkeley, is giving local foster youths a helping hand.

"When these kids make a mistake, it's life altering," said Amy Lemley, a 1998 graduate of UC Berkeley's Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy and executive director of First Place Fund for Youth, a non-profit organization that helps foster youth from Alameda and San Francisco counties. "They are not afforded second chances because they simply don't have the resources."

First Place, created last year by Lemley and fellow UC Berkeley graduate student Deanne Pearn, helps emancipated foster youths, ages 17 to 21, move from custodial care to independent living. It provides the young adults with short-term financial support in the form of micro-loans and rental subsidies and the training they'll need to be financially successful once they complete the program.

UC Berkeley public policy professor Jane Mauldin spends a week each semester examining the issues of foster youth in her graduate level class on policies aimed at adolescents. She said current policies for emancipation from foster care just don't provide enough support.

"The truth is that we've failed abysmally," said Mauldin, who taught both Lemley and Pearn when they attended UC Berkeley. "The real problem is that the state's care for these people ends on their 18th birthday. Very little thought has been given to their transition into adulthood."

First Place fills this void, she said.

"It's more than just rent," said Pearn, First Place's program director. "It's guidance and critical thinking skills and making sure they know what all their options are."

The First Place program is based on the peer lending model, originally developed in Bangladesh. The youths are divided into small groups and go through eight weeks of economic literacy training, where they are taught everything from the way interest is calculated to how to balance a check book. When the training is complete, the group of six becomes a "loan class."

The two program participants in the greatest need of housing are paired together and can take out a loan of up to $1,400 from First Place.

The loan isn't guaranteed, however. The pair must present a repayment plan to their loan class, which decides whether to approve the loan. If they approve it, everyone in the loan class cosigns the loan and becomes financially and legally responsible for repayment. The pair make weekly payments on the loan and, following four successful payments, another pair can take out a similar loan.

"The youth understand that they need to answer to other youth," said Lemley. "This really capitalizes on peer pressure and uses it in a positive way, where they're supporting each other and helping each other not only because of their own self interests, but because of the relationships that are formed."

The money is used to pay first and last month's rent on an apartment located and negotiated by First Place. Initially, First Place heavily subsidizes the rent, asking the young adults to contribute only 30 percent of their monthly wages to the total bill. But, over the two years that they are required to stay in the apartment, the subsidy is reduced gradually, and by the 22nd month the youths are footing the whole bill. In addition, they've also paid off the loan and can use the $1,400 as a deposit on their next apartment, if they choose to move.

"It's a real world transition into mainstream America," said Lemley. "They have the relationship with the landlord, they're learning how to negotiate independent living, but they're doing it in a safe environment, an environment like most middle-class kids have."

Nineteen-year-old Kiana Rivera was accepted to First Place last March. She used to spend her nights sleeping in cheap motel rooms. Now, she shares an apartment with another former foster child and will attend Merritt College this fall.

"It's really helping me out a lot," said Rivera. "You're learning how to manage your own apartment and become the independent adult that you're supposed to be."

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