Each year about 30,000 young people who have been in foster care age out of the system, usually at age 18. While the number of children in foster care overall has declined in the past decade, the number leaving the system without a single safe and caring adult in their lives has skyrocketed. More than half leave foster care without their high school diplomas or GED. More than half experience homelessness in the first year of aging out. Less than 3 percent go on to higher education and of that number only 3 percent graduate with a four-year degree. More than 70 percent of the people in our prisons report having been in either foster care or homeless shelters. Young people who have formerly been in foster care have the highest rate of unemployment in the nation other than people with disabilities. This cycle of despair must be stopped now. We cannot afford to turn our backs on teens who have been through more than most people can imagine and expect them to create a productive, joyful life.
I’ve seen the magic that happens when a teen in foster care knows someone believes in her or him. With just a little bit of time and love invested, kids blossom. They find their voices, dare to dream and work to secure their goals. I cofounded the Orange Duffel Bag Foundation
, the only nonprofit in the nation that does certified life plan coaching with teens in foster care and homeless youth. Our 12-week coaching course, based on the principles in My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey To Radical Change
, teaches kids to tell their stories and be proud of what they’ve overcome. Then we teach them to identify their talents, what they are good at and how to formulate a new story. The final lesson is all about giving back and being grateful. A family of advocates gets to know the kids during the classes and maintains contact with them after they graduate. When they graduate, each is awarded a laptop computer, because they need connections.
Many of them have missed out on so many of the social opportunities that are naturally available to kids who aren’t in foster care. The rules that teens in foster care live under mean that they often miss school field trips, they cannot spend the night with a friend, and they may not get to participate in afterschool activities or sports. The sense of belonging to a community of people who have a shared history can be empowering. We’ve seen a support system spring up among the students who go through our 12-week coaching program. There’s a sense of pride and camaraderie.
Right now we are in Georgia, but our dream is to take our coaching nationwide. We’ve graduated 100 young people and delivered a sample of our coaching to more than 2,000. Several ODBF graduates are now in college, which is remarkable when you understand the barriers these young people face.
Consider becoming a respite foster parent. Offer your skills as a tutor at a group home, which is where most teens in foster care live. Donate school supplies and help kids study for the ACT/SAT. Get your company or an organization to adopt a group home and spend time. Offer internships. Donate tickets to events to a group home.
What teens in foster care need is what we all need: to know that someone out there cares.
Image depicting a family from Shutterstock