Camarillo Acorn: Group Wants Mentoring Program for Foster Girls

Apr 25, 2008

Camarillo Acorn
Group wants mentoring program for foster girls
Survey shows that along with housing, it’s a critical need
Friday April 25th, 2008
By Michelle Knight

A volunteer group wants to match mentors with young women aging out of the county’s foster care system and is asking agencies capable of sustaining such a program to step forward.

The 70-member United Women’s Leadership Council wants organizations to submit proposals between April 21 and May 23 to the United Way of Ventura County. The council wants a countywide mentoring program in place by June 1.

The volunteer group, comprised mostly of women, found through a survey that mentors and housing are the “two critical needs” of girls currently in and women emancipated from the Ventura County foster care system, said Lydia Ledesma-Reese, council chair.

Earlier this year, the council surveyed six teenage girls ages 15 to 19 and 11 women who grew up in foster care. Nearly all of the women had been homeless at some point after leaving foster care. The teenagers, however, were naive about the likelihood of becoming homeless and felt confident public support programs would help them make a seamless move from foster care, Ledesma-Reese said.

But that’s unlikely, she said, because some housing support agencies have a three-year waiting list, requiring persons signing up to be 18 years or older. In addition, a county independent living program that teaches foster youth life skills and job training is under funded and overtaxed, LedesmaReese added.

The former Oxnard College president presented the findings at the council’s second annual event held last month at the Courtyard by Marriott in Oxnard. Celebrated author and former foster youth Ashley Rhodes-Courter, who spoke at the event, confirmed foster youth need mentors to add stability to their lives. The 22yearold Florida resident has gained national media attention since her memoirs about the years she spent growing up in foster care were published in January.

Statistics also bear out this vulnerable population’s need for mentors and housing. Every year, some 30 or so women turn 18 and age out of the county’s foster care system. They face a cycle of homelessness, substance abuse, gangs and/or pregnancy.

Statewide, half of all foster youth become homeless and unemployed after they’re emancipated from the system and national statistics follow the same trends. The council’s survey offered invaluable insight into the needs of foster girls and women who grew up in foster care, because the data came straight from them, Ledesma-Reese said.

“That’s very important; a lot of people don’t do that,” she said at the council’s April 17 meeting.

The council, which started out with nine members in November 2006 and now counts 70 members, has raised $70,000 to help these girls and women.

For at least three years, the council focuses its energies and resources on a specific project, particularly those that improve women’s lives. As its first undertaking, the volunteer group that operates under the auspices of United Way of Ventura County chose to help the county’s former foster girls make the transition into healthy and productive lives.

Having spent its first year in operation building a strong foundation by researching the needs of this vulnerable population, the council is ready to act, LedesmaReese said.

In addition to the mentoring program, the council plans to provide housing assistance for former foster women during its second year of operation, The Year of the Girl.

“The council is excited to be entering the second year of this effort now that we know exactly what the needs are regarding this target population,” said Amy Fonzo, United Way’s vice president of resource development.

The council also plans activities where members, many of whom are leaders in business, education and the nonprofit sector, can interact with young girls in foster care and serve as role models.

Leadership-level membership in the council costs $1,000 a year, but any money donation is welcome, and 100 percent goes toward the cause.

People wishing to support the council but who may not have the time or money to join can still contribute to its efforts.

Some have found unique ways to help, such as Van Gundy Jewelers of Ventura and Camarillo, who donated silver jewelry for the council to use in any way that helps foster youth. And Meathead Movers of Camarillo plans to sponsor a membership recruitment event for the council this summer at a Westlake Village restaurant. Another person has volunteered to teach foster youth to be financially literate.

“They’re contributing their skills and experience,” Fonzo said. “We think it will be useful.”

For more information about the United Women’s Leadership Council or to learn of ways to help, call Amy Fonzo at (805) 485-6288, ext. 230.

Writer Michelle Knight is a member of the United Women’s Leadership Council.

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