Lost in Transition: How Our Independent Living Skills Program Empowers Youth in Foster Care

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by Emily Ostrowski

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is complicated for most everyone, however youth in foster care  face a unique set of challenges once they age out of the system. At YWCA Clark County, our Independent Living Skills (ILS) Program aims to help youth age 15-21 successfully transition from state-supported care to independent living through education, financial assistance, and advocacy focused on housing, education, and employment which empower participants to define and achieve their goals.

According to the National Foster Youth Institute more than 23,000 children age out of foster care each year. Robbie Orr, Director of YWCA Clark County’s ILS Program highlighted some of the particular challenges youth face when aging out of the system:

“Many youth are not ready to leave foster care, but have to anyway. Because of this, some youth struggle to learn basic life skills like how to obtain and retain a job and housing, as well as how to keep stable relationships with a support network. Youth in the foster care system are also used to social workers making all of their decisions for them, so once they turn 18 they often struggle with how to do basic things like set up doctors appointments, show up to places on time, continue to go to school, and live on a budget.” 

This is where ILS can prove to be an invaluable resource to kids who participate in the program. Orr, who has been with ILS since 2009, noted that the program usually serves between 55-70 foster youth at any given time. Throughout the 2016-17 fiscal year, ILS helped 102 foster youth in the Clark County area. One of the main focuses of ILS is making sure youth who are approaching aging out of care know they have someone they can rely on. “We try and build solid relationships with youth when they are younger, so that when they do age out of foster care, they know we are people they can trust,” said Orr.

Orr also emphasized that ILS is a youth driven program, and that whatever their specific goals are, the staff at ILS will work as hard as they can to help them achieve it. “If a young person wants to go to college, we will help them with all things necessary to go to college,” said Orr. “On the other hand, if a young person said they want to join the circus, we will figure out how that is done. So any youth in the program gets supported in whatever way they want to, which is about the exact opposite of most of the other things going on in their lives.”

Another huge advantage of being a participant in the ILS program is access to financial assistance. Once the youth turns 18, and up until their 21st birthday, they can access up to $1,500 each fiscal year to be put towards rent, clothing, and other essentials. Financial assistance is critical due in no small part to the affordable housing crisis currently affecting much of the country, including the Vancouver/Portland area. “The high cost of living in our area is a huge barrier for ILS program participants, as most of them are working very low paying, entry level jobs,” said Orr. “ Minimum wage won’t pay rent if it’s between $900-$1,500 just for a one bedroom apartment.”

For those looking to help participants in our ILS Program, donating new or slightly used household items like towels, sheets, pots and pans, as well as hygiene products is always appreciated. Additionally, gift cards to places like restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations can help ease the financial burden of living independently. Just as important are people who are willing and able to give opportunities to these kids when they are just starting out. “We are always looking for people who have employment connections and housing connections,” said Orr. “So if you own your own business and want to hire young people, or if you are a landlord who wants to rent to young people at an affordable rate, and understand the barriers they face, let’s have a conversation.”

Whatever the challenges and frustrations that come along with working to empower youth in foster care, Orr stressed the rewards are more than worth it:

“The most satisfying aspect of working with these youth is seeing them plan out a goal and achieve it. Often times a former youth in the program will call and just say, “Thank you for……..”, which is one of the greatest things someone can ever say to someone working in this field. To know that something you said made a lasting difference on a young person is incredibly rewarding.”

Click here to learn more about our Independent Living Skills Program and how you can help youth in foster care.

 

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