How An LA Community College Built A Home For Former Foster Youth
On the Mt. San Antonio College campus, Dani Luna Lima sits in a pop-up garden of blue hearts and blue ribbon. "Clair de Lune" plays softly, piped in throughout the flowers.
May is Foster Youth Awareness Month, and in recognition, the garden decorations here represent the roughly 400,000 children and adolescents who have been removed from their biological parents in the United States, and are now in the foster care system.
Lima was one of those foster children. When she enrolled in Mt. SAC, she joined the college's program for former foster youth, Reaching, Empowering, Achieving & Completing with Heart, or REACH. After graduating she went to work for the program as a student services support specialist.
REACH, now in its eighth year, demonstrates the breadth and depth of experiences that students like Lima come to college with, and how college success requires support beyond enrollment.
“You're transitioning from being in the foster care system into an adult where you have to get your own job and you have to pay for your apartment, and you have to get a car, and you have to learn what insurance is and how to build your own credit,” Lima says. Those students usually don’t have parents helping them with all the things outside of college, she says.
The REACH program at Mt. SAC helps foster youth to transition from a life of instability to a life of education and community, says program director Jeze Lopez.
“Every student in the program gets peer mentoring, access to counselors designated specifically for the foster youth program, and access to our life skills curriculum to build these very specific life skills that many times they're lacking,” Lopez says.
REACH assists about 300 students on campus each year. Lopez says the program also has emergency grants, free textbooks, life skills classes, and field trips for the students. But he says the greatest service REACH provides is consistency.
“Normally when a person has a family, there's someone that has the emotional investment in them to sit down and talk to them, give them many times the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from it without any threat to the relationship,” Lopez says. “Our students don't have that.”
Lopez says foster youth who first enter community college have deeply ingrained survival instincts.
“Our students come here saying, OK, what do I need to do in order for me to get what I need?," he says. "Whether that means I need to cry, I need to be vulnerable. Maybe I need to scream, maybe I need to be submissive.”
Lopez says whatever has worked in the past, the students will continue to do in the REACH office, and sometimes they struggle with rules or consequences.
“What we try to do is we try to be fair, but we try to be consistent so that they understand that if you come today and you scream at us and you blow up over something… it doesn't matter. Come back tomorrow, come back an hour later, we're still gonna be here for you.”
Abuse in the foster care system
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, children between 1–5 years old make up nearly 30% of children entering foster care, meaning the foster system is the only thing they know growing up. Aside from the instability of switching homes every year, there are subtle ways abuse can affect children.
Lopez recounts a former student’s experience.
“Whenever there was any family function, or especially the holidays, he was asked to go outside to the porch and not mingle with extended family, not mingle with the foster parents’ family,” he says. “So he said, ‘Yeah, they would bring food out to me. They would bring water, make sure that I had everything that they were having inside, but I was not allowed into the house because they had people over.’”
He was 7 years old.
Sometimes the trauma is more obvious. Lima, the alum-turned-staff-member, recounts how she came to the REACH program.
She had a long journey. Her dad left when she was 2 years old, and her mom struggled with drug and alcohol addiction.
“She ended up succumbing to her addictions and prostituting herself and leaving my sister and I at a park all day long while she was doing her thing," she said. "Trying to get some money to fuel her addiction. Selling our food stamps to fuel her addiction. Selling any Christmas presents my sister and I received during the holidays to fuel her addiction. And eventually it caught up to her. Prostitution caught up to her, robbing people's homes to fuel her addiction caught up to her. And so by the time I was 6 years old, she finally got caught and she ended up going to prison. And that's how I entered into the foster care system.”
In 2021, 35% of foster youths in the U.S. were placed with relatives, but Lima points out that this is not always a good thing.
“[My mother] was the broken child of a broken child,” Lima says.
She and her sister were initially placed with their grandmother, and the situation was just as abusive as being with their mother. Lima bounced around to over a dozen different foster homes. She says this is common, because a foster youth is not going to act “perfect.”
“You develop a lot of coping mechanisms and personality traits and characteristics… you build a lot of walls, you don't welcome anybody into your life so easily. It's difficult to get close to people. And I think when you're moving through life in the foster care system, that can come off as abrasive and aggressive or cold, and I think that puts people off,” Lima says. “So you're kind of seen as a nuisance with all your personality traits that they cannot understand, ‘cuz they don't understand that you're just really trying to survive this moment.”
You develop a lot of coping mechanisms and personality traits and characteristics… you build a lot of walls, you don't welcome anybody into your life so easily. It's difficult to get close to people.
Lima does not seem shaken when she recites her childhood experience. She says it like she’s listing off her resumé during a job interview. But when she transitions to talking about REACH, she begins to tear up.
“There was one moment during the pandemic where I was super lonely, the holidays are especially tough for foster youth to deal with because we never had a traditional holiday season growing up. We were always getting uprooted and felt like we didn't belong. I was super depressed. I had just recently lost my job due to the pandemic and I didn't have a family and I remember REACH sent me this gift package in the mail. It consisted of all these little knickknacks, like socks and a jacket and a beanie and AirPods and like all these beautiful, you know, little tiny gifts that they thought would be useful for me. Masks and hand sanitizer. It was super difficult to get that at that time. And I remember I just like broke down bawling.”
Lima starts to cry, hiding her face as the music plays on in the garden.
“It was just so sweet. They didn't need to do that, you know. They didn't need to do that, but they did and it was super meaningful to me. And what happened was it kind of healed something in me, just that one gesture,” Lima says, wiping away tears. “It made me feel like, it doesn't matter what happened as a kid. It doesn't matter that I didn't grow up with parents. Somebody loved me and they were thinking about me enough to send me this little care package and let me know. ‘Happy Holidays. We're thinking about you. Last semester we saw you got straight As. You go girl.’
Foster care, she adds, doesn’t really feel that way.
“You don't feel like you matter. You don't feel like you're worthy of love.”
Keep coming back
On top of the normal life transition, Lima says foster youth are often struggling with the psychological, mental, and spiritual challenges of recovering from foster care abuse.
“You're dealing with severe depression or severe anxiety or PTSD, you're just going through the motions and you make decisions based on those emotions and a lot of the times that pulls you away from your academic endeavors,” Lima says.
I never had anybody to be interested in what was happening with me or even cared where I was at or if I was safe.
Always in survival mode, Lima says foster youth are more likely to go for a job with a steady paycheck than to enroll in college.
“I dropped out of college three times and every single time I came back, it was predominantly because the REACH program was hitting me up and emailing me and calling me and asking me, ‘Where are you at?”
Lima says REACH was the first time she ever had anyone consistently care about her.
“I never had anybody to be interested in what was happening with me or even cared where I was at or if I was safe. I didn't have anybody else asking me that kind of stuff or inviting me to things for the holidays. But REACH always did.”
Be better people
Lopez wants all adults to ask themselves how they can help the thousands of foster children in the U.S. He says step one: Don’t have kids unless you are truly ready and capable of the emotional and financial toll children require.
“The only perfect system for this system would be if it did not exist. So I think the first thing for us individuals is to be a better person. If you need to work on yourself, go to therapy, before you embark on the challenge of being a parent – and recognize maybe being a parent is not for you.”
The only perfect system for this system would be if it did not exist.
Lopez says he has seen countless cases of children entering the foster system due to neglect, and now believes some people were never suited to being caregivers.
“Some of us, you know, maybe we need to be the cool uncle, the cool aunt, or maybe we just need to be the wacky neighbor that sometimes babysits. But you need to grow as a person so that you're not contributing to extending this foster care system.”
Another solution? Start helping your neighbor who may be struggling with being a parent.
“We're so individualistic in this society that someone else's problem is someone else's problem. No, it's our problem,” Lopez says. “We are a combined society. We are one country.”
Lopez says this month, REACH is celebrating all that has been accomplished to support foster youth at Mt. SAC for the last eight years, but it’s also about raising awareness. He says if you have the means to be a foster parent — do. But you can also help by volunteering your time, donating clothes, or voting for elected officials who seek to improve the foster system.
Transactional vs. unconditional love
Lopez says unconditional love is something foster children usually do not receive, and it’s what every child deserves. Lopez has children of his own now, and it hits closer to home when he hears how so many children have had to struggle.
“Someone should have been there 100% to protect you, to love you, to take care of you. And not only did they not do that, they were the aggressor. They were the ones neglecting you, abusing you.”
Lopez says foster youth are used to transactional love. “If I act this specific way, you will provide for me. And if I fail to act that way, you will not provide for me.”
He says what they need most is someone who will be there no matter what mistakes they make.
“It doesn't happen overnight," he says. "All of our students come with a need. The moment we start meeting that need and they come back and they see that we're still here, that's when that transformation starts to happen.”
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