May is Foster Youth Awareness Month and the Kern County Network for Children would like to take this opportunity to thank our community partners, foster parents, social workers, probation officers, mental health professionals, CASA and many others who strive to provide nurturing and support for this most vulnerable population.

According to childrensrights.org, on any given day, there are nearly 437,000 children in foster care in the United States. In Kern County, we have more than 1,700 children who are in foster care. These children are removed from their birth families due to abuse or neglect and placed with other caregivers. Their lives have been disrupted due to no fault of their own. Each year, approximately 140 Kern youth emancipate or “age-out” of the foster care system. Like all children, they deserve love, hope and joy in their lives, and support with successfully transitioning to adulthood.

Research shows that within two to four years of exiting the foster care system, 50 percent of these youth will be unemployed and an estimated 25 percent will experience homelessness. Despite the fact that 70 percent of these youth express the desire to go to college, less than 15 percent achieve that goal, and only 3 percent of them graduate. That is why in 2008 we opened the Dream Center, Kern’s one-stop resource center for current and former foster youth up to age 25.

The Dream Center is a safe place where current/former youth can receive clothes, food, hygiene items; meet with staff from different agencies that provide a continuum of social, mental health, CalFresh, MediCal, employment, housing, education and other supportive services; socialize; use computers; and if homeless, they can shower, do laundry and use the center’s address for mail. An average of 40 youth visit the center each day.

Thanks to incredibly generous community members, from July 1, 2019, through March 18, youth benefited from donated clothes 993 times, hygiene items 789 times, emergency food 302 times and 7,515 snack bags. And, the Westchester Kiwanis Club ensures that homeless youth who have job interviews and get jobs are given bus passes and work clothes.

Despite the obstacles and the trauma that these youth face, there are many strong and resilient foster youth who are successful in school, work, sports and other activities. Some have amazing stories of resiliency. I think of an 18-year-old former foster youth who came to the Dream Center looking for help. They were living on the streets in a homeless encampment, with a much older man. We were able to get them off the streets and into a low barrier shelter, they attended classes at Bakersfield College, received mental health services and is now in stable housing and thriving.

Although California’s COVID-19 shelter-in-place order has temporally closed the center, we are continuing to visit youth while practicing social distancing — going for walks; checking on the youth via phone and conducting other case management services remotely; doing telephone screenings and assessments with homeless youth who call or are referred by partner agencies; checking the main voicemail number three times a day and returning calls; ensuring that youth know about COVID relief programs available; getting mail to them; and providing for emergency needs.

When the Dream Center reopens, we will need the continued support of our many community partners who over the years have donated food, diapers, hygiene items, as well as gently used clothing, household and baby items. The Dream Center would not be able to offer these incredibly needed and greatly appreciated items without the generous support of our community — a community that helps us meet the needs of youth year-round.

We know these are stressful times for everyone, but for a foster child or emancipated youth who was already struggling emotionally and financially, it is even more lonely and challenging. We salute the Dream Center staff, representing nine agencies, and the many care givers and other professionals who refuse to allow COVID-19 to leave our most vulnerable unserved. And we sincerely thank the many community members and service organizations who help us to make a difference in the lives of the more than 800 current and former foster youth who receive Dream Center services each year.

Jayme Stuart is the coordinator of the Kern County Network for Children/Dream Center.