Zach Martin doesn’t know why Child Protective Services stripped him from his parents when he was a toddler. He was told it might have involved drugs, but he’s not really sure.
That experience landed him in the foster care system, where he estimates he was bounced from foster parent to foster parent as many as 40 times over 16 years.
“Some just didn’t want me for some reason,” Martin said.
Martin, now 21, lives in a homeless shelter – the tough reality that some foster youths face after they leave the system.
And that’s why Martin is thankful that the Dream Center, a one-stop shop for foster youth services run by the Kern County Network for Children, relocated last month from its 3,000-square foot downtown office to a space more than triple that size just down the street from the Greyhound Bus Station.
That extra space means more services, including a place for Martin to do his laundry, search for a job and just hang out during the day. A place where people care about him.
“Most days I come here just to chill,” Martin said as he sketched Japanese anime figures on a tablet that a local pastor let him borrow for the day.
The center celebrated its new space Tuesday at a ribbon cutting event attended by hundreds of community leaders and children’s advocates, ranging from social service workers and probation officers to officials from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, which funds the Kern County Network for Children.
Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow called the new center “a dream come true.”
It was retired Kern County Superintendent of Schools Larry Reider’s vision a decade ago to create a space for foster youth where they could get every service made available to them beneath one roof. The Dream Center was born, with this goal in mind: service 200 foster youths a year.
It now serves that many youths on a weekly basis.
“That vision is now a reality,” said Kern County Network for Children Executive Director Tom Corson, who runs the Dream Center.
The new 11,000-square-foot space spans two buildings, which previously housed a gym and the offices of internet provider Lightspeed Net.
With all that space, The Dream Center can offer youths services they never had before, including simple necessities, like a laundry room with machines donated by the local Kiwanis Club and shower facilities that homeless youth can use.
“You people get us,” one homeless foster youth told Jayme Stuart, a KCNC coordinator, after she gave them a tour of the center last month.
The center also employs two public health nurses who are staffed in a new medical office, on site, two hours a week.
That public health installation offers well-baby visits for foster youth who have children of their own, delivers immunizations and flu shots and provides hands-only CPR training.
It also offers medical treatment to foster youths who in the past were unsure what to do when they came down with one ailment or another.
“They would typically just dial 911 and the ambulance would come and assist that youth,” said Brynn Carrigan, the Kern County Public Health Services Department’s assistant public health director. “Now our nurses are helping the youth successfully navigate the system and teaching them what would require a 911 call and response versus what could just be triaged and taken care of on their own.”
Another new addition? A full kitchen and dinette where foster youth get cooking classes to learn about healthy eating options. It's a big upgrade from the cooking appliances the old Dream Center could accommodate: a crock pot and a microwave.
"The need is huge. The whole goal is to prepare them to be independent so that they can learn how to cook a well-balanced meal, how to time a meal, how much food you need to have to provide a meal for a family. All of those things are things we take for granted," Stuart said.
The expansion of services has already proven successful. The Dream Center has seen an increase in foster youths coming in and signing up for critical services like job training and classes to earn their general equivalency diplomas, Stuart said.
“We’re here for whatever they need as a support system. Sometimes they want help with housing, sometimes they just want to talk to somebody. Sometimes they’re in crisis and ... sometimes they just stop in to say hi,” said Brenda Story, a mental health unit supervisor with the Transitional Age Youth Team at Kern County Behavioral Health Services Department. A member of that team is staffed at the Dream Center five days a week to assist anyone who needs help, she said.
And for some foster youth, the center really is a place where dreams come true. Sarah Reyes was 17 when she decided she had had enough of a foster home that she decided wasn’t good enough for her. She nearly ended up homeless, she said. Then her social worker told her about the Dream Center.
“I finally went, and I didn’t realize how many resources there were,” Reyes said. “They helped me get an apartment, and then I left immediately.”
Then Reyes enrolled in the Adolescent Career Transition Program, which paired her up with an internship to gain job experience along with life skills training. She now works as a full-time receptionist at the Kern County Department of Human Services.
“I tell my siblings if they want change and a difference in their lives, they have to step out of their comfort zones and go,” Reyes said of the Dream Center. “This will change your life.”