Downtown resident uses holiday-themed mini drives to help foster youth
By Joyell Nevins
Home is a place you belong, a place you can call your own. It should be a place of security and safety. And according to the nonprofit organization Just in Time (JIT), which works with foster youth aged 18 to 26, a consistent place to call home and a community of caring adults are essential steps toward creating a secure future.
Downtown resident and JIT mentor Diane Archambault saw this firsthand when she volunteered as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) through Voices for Children. Her niche was foster teenagers and while she really liked working with that group, after eight years she was frustrated by the results when they “aged out” of the system. That’s what it’s called when a foster teen turns 18 and is no longer considered a ward of the state.
The teens may have had a transitional planning conference with their social worker ahead of time, been given an “emancipation packet” of information, and sometimes are set up with a physical space to live — but then are left to fend for themselves. Archambault said it was typical for a foster teen to leave with only a garbage bag of clothes to their name.
“They would get their housing, and [life situations] would happen along the way, and a lot of them were failing with no support system,” Archambault said. “I would help them become stable and independent and it was heart-wrenching to see them fail so quickly.”
According to the California Senate Office of Research, foster youth make up 46 percent of California’s homeless population.
The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System found in the fiscal year 2014 that nationwide, out of 251,764 children placed into foster care, 23,439 aged out. Out of those who aged out, 1 in 5 will become homeless, 1 in 4 will experience post-traumatic stress disorder and less than 3 percent will earn a college degree.
Organizations like the Grantville-based Just in Time are working to change to those statistics. In fiscal year 2015, JIT helped establish 127 different safe and stable homes through their “My First Home” program.
“This is the first time I feel stable,” said Sauna Johnson, a former foster youth and current productive member of society. “It feels amazing.”
Johnson and her two sisters had lived in six different states by the time she was 10 years old. Her parents were traveling musicians and lived out a tortured, abusive relationship. After her dad went to jail, Johnson’s mother shuffled them in and out of family shelters until a dance team coach named Sheronna Dangerfield offered to let the family stay in her house.
“Then one day, my mom just never came home,” Johnson said.
That was when Johnson was 13 years old. After slugging through the system, moving to be with blood family in Ohio, then being transferred back to California, the Johnson girls ended up back with Dangerfield.
“She took all three of us in,” Johnson said. “She’s pretty special.”
After Johnson turned 18, however, being out on her own didn’t work out so well. A few years later, she was back on Dangerfield’s doorstep. Dangerfield had a bedroom to offer, but that was it — literally; a room with no furniture.
One of Johnson’s sisters had connected with the organization through a college counselor and suggested they could help Johnson, too. JIT’s My First Home got Johnson a bed, but the assistance didn’t stop there.
She also participated in JIT’s Career Horizons program, where career coach and volunteer Carly Hanzlik helped Johnson with interview skills, developing her resume, and setting and achieving her goals. Now Johnson has a full-time job at the San Diego Airport and her own place in the College area.
“I just wish I knew about [JIT] when I was 18,” Johnson said. “It could have helped me towards my future.”
Like Johnson, 46 percent of My First Home recipients are also able to connect to other JIT services like career and college planning, financial fitness, and adult mentoring.
The mentoring is what drew Archambault to JIT. She found the organization while looking for a way to help the former fosters she saw failing.
“I love that the organization provides services and that those come with a volunteer mentor — a person,” Archambault said.
One of the reasons Archambault appreciates working with JIT even more than as a CASA, is the connections she’s able to make. Working in the court system, boundaries are very strict. With JIT, there are less restrictions on the relationships formed.
She and her husband David have had teens and young adults through JIT over for dinner, helped them apply and get set up in colleges and jobs, included them in holiday celebrations, even helped them get set up with a dentist and learn to cook.
“The system is just tough,” Archambault said. “These kids come out with emotional baggage. Through JIT, I’ve really been able to connect with the youth in a different way.”
Now a board member as well as a volunteer mentor, Archambault said that it’s up to the youth and mentor to establish their relationship.
“The youth can pace it in a way that’s comfortable for them,” she said.
What helped make Johnson comfortable was that many of the JIT staff are former foster youth themselves. While she admits she was pessimistic going in —wondering, “What’s the catch?” — stories from the JIT staff and their relatability helped alleviate her fears.
“When someone’s been in your shoes, it puts you at ease,” she said.
Want to help?
With the holidays right around the corner, JIT is promoting a series of mini drives called, “My First Home for the Holidays,” and anyone who wishes to get in the spirit of the holidays may participate.
JIT staff encourage individuals and groups — churches, civic groups, nonprofits, schools — to launch their own mini drives to support “My First Home for the Holidays.”
Organizers can get creative in finding ways to raise funds or collect gift cards to home goods stores like Target and Walmart. Also needed are new household items — like silverware sets, dishware, pots and pans, bath towels, full/queen size sheets and comforters, toasters and microwaves — anything that would help a foster youth set up their first apartment.
Don Wells, executive director of JIT, said that in past years, one mini drive focused on vacuums, another on school supplies, and yet another, on toaster ovens, but other drives are all gift cards or a variety of donations. While the mini drives tend to happen all year round, Wells said those held around the holidays seem to garner the most; then JIT distributes the items as needed throughout the year.
For the last six years, Archambault and her husband have hosted a special holiday luncheon for their friends and invited guests as their own mini drive. They provide the food and entertainment; the guests provide the My First Home gift cards and goodwill. This year Johnson will be speaking at the annual luncheon.
“It’s grown into a wonderful day for my friends to give back and have fun,” Archambault said of her luncheon, which started with 18 of her close friends and has grown to 65 attendees.
It also gives the couple an opportunity to educate others about the good deeds of JIT, and many attendees end up becoming volunteers themselves.
And connecting people to JIT, which serves approximately 700 foster youth per year, is entirely the point.
“Our mission is to mobilize the community as a network of support and an extended family,” Wells said. “The foster youth we serve are first disconnected from their own families, spend many years in foster homes, and then age out and are on their own. The disconnection just continues.”
So, in addition to the many gift cards or household items brought in, the groups holding the mini drives are also helping JIT expand their mission, by connecting the foster youth to people, too.
“Once that connection is made, we find it just continues to grow,” Wells said.
For more information on how to host your own mini drive, contact Nathan Brunetta at 619-677-2119 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit them at 4560 Alvarado Canyon Road, Suite 2G, in the Grantville area of San Diego. To learn more about JIT or volunteer in other ways, visit their website at jitfosteryouth.org.
— Editor Morgan M. Hurley contributed to this report.