I had the opportunity to speak with Don Wells, Executive Director of Just in Time for Foster Youth, an organization that provides emancipated foster youth with opportunities for self-sufficiency through emergency support, essential resources, and caring personal guidance at critical junctures on their path to independence. In December 2010, Women Give awarded $26,000 for the development of the Career Horizons for Young Women program, which supports young women in their transition from foster care to independent adulthood.
Career Horizons is a new program for the organization with the purpose of exposing young women to different career choices. In the foster care system, individuals have only been exposed to a few careers in their life: criminal justice, social work or teaching. JIT wanted to give these young women a greater exposure to different careers when they heard about the WGSD grant. According to Wells, “it was serendipity!”
The program is currently serving 20 young women who are just graduating high school, in the workforce, in college or a vocational school and are trying to decide on a career to pursue or are looking for a job. Personal and professional networks help us get connected in the community, but these young women didn’t have a network. Wells comments, “They lack things we take for granted.” Career Horizons provides the beginnings of a network.
Previous to taking on the Executive Director position a little more than a year ago, Don Wells was a Board member for Just in Time. He has dedicated himself to helping foster youth for the past 12 years. In 1999, he was the promotions director at Channel 10 when the station had a goal to recruit 1,000 male mentors before Father’s Day in response to the Columbine shootings (April 20, 1999). Don had been reading and looking at reports about how these young men were in these states and acting out because they didn’t have males in their lives to be mentors: “So, of course, I had to join too since it was my initiative.”
He started to mentor a young man, Victor, (age 9 at the time) and then met his sister, Belen (age 8). Shortly after he met these young people, they were placed into foster care because their mother was not capable of taking care of them. In an act of serendipity, their lawyer was Jeanette Day, who ultimately became the founder of Just in Time.
In 2002, Jeanette Day founded Just in Time to serve foster youth who were aging out of the system. She enlisted the help of a friend, Diane Cox, to create gift baskets of household items for youth who had emancipated from foster care with little or no family to count on. By 2003, Just in Time was born as an auxiliary of the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation (now known as Promises2Kids) with help from Louarn Sorkin, and in 2006, gained its own nonprofit tax exempt status through the efforts of Kathryn Vaughn and Tony Hsu. Along the way, Jeanette and Don formed a partnership, to gain visibility for this cause through TV appearances and later as occasional volunteer for the organization.
Through his mentoring experience, Don began to see some weaknesses in the foster care system. For example, Belen never started or ended the school year at the same school for five years in a row because she was constantly moving around. And every time she moved, she had a different social worker. Two years into their unique friendship, Belen asked Don: Why are you still here? Her experience had been that people come and go, but nobody stays. There was no continuity in her life – except for Don: “It was clear to me that there needed to be a steady constant in her life.”
The gaps in care become more magnified once foster youth turn 18 years old and age out of the foster care system. There is misconception that foster youth are successfully reunited with their biological family or they have a foster family that becomes their family. According to Wells, this is rare occurrence. The reality is that at 18, they leave the system and, while they do receive some resources, support is limited. JIT was founded on efforts to deal with those limitations.
Just in Time for Foster Youth exists to fill the gaps. Foster youth will receive transitional housing, but don’t have any funds to purchase furniture so they would be sleeping on the floor. Students, who graduated from high school and headed to college, didn’t have a laptop. They would start classes without their books because they were waiting on financial aid to come through. These young people do not have a family helping them out with the cost of living on their own. JIT steps in as that extended family.
Career Horizons is one more way that JIT is “filling the gap” by providing networks and mentors for young women pursuing their education and careers.
How can you help?
Just in Time is looking for women mentors for these young women. If you have time to share, Just in Time invites you to join them at their next Career Horizons Mixer on Saturday, June 25 from 2-4 p.m. at the Just in Time offices at 3878 Old Town Avenue, Second Floor). If you can attend, please RSVP to Don at 858-663-2081 or firstname.lastname@example.org.