After about eight years living with foster families, Saunja Mayfield wanted to break free of the system and be on her own.
At 19, she thought she knew it all and wanted to live by her own rules, just like any rebellious teen.
Looking back, Mayfield, now 24, admits she was unprepared for life with no family or institutional support. She ended up homeless bouncing from house to house.
“Life hits you hard after you get out,” she said. “You feel like the whole world is against you.”
Her experience is common for the 1,000 to 1,300 young Ohioans — and estimated 24,000 kids nationwide — who age out of the foster care system each year.
To try to improve the oftentimes bumpy transition, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Big Brothers Big Sisters and eight counties, including Summit, have launched a pilot program called “Connecting the Dots from Foster Care to Employment and Independent Living.”
It’s designed to better prepare foster kids and those recently emancipated for work, vocational training or college, and just plain living on their own.
Summit, Cuyahoga, Hamilton, Lake, Montgomery, Preble, Clinton and Greene counties are participating. The state has devoted nearly $6 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money for the three-year effort, including $537,000 in Summit.
The goal is eventually to roll out the best practices statewide.
Without parents pushing and teaching life lessons, the odds are stacked against foster kids. And there’s no safety net for them to fall back on.
Nationally, 81 percent of the boys are arrested by age 24, while 48 percent of the girls become pregnant by age 19.
A third have household incomes below the poverty level, a quarter experience post-traumatic stress disorder, and nearly a quarter end up homeless.
“We know that the statistics nationwide for young adults who leave foster care without being adopted are not good,” said Benjamin Johnson, spokesman with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. “We wanted to develop a program to counteract that.”
The Summit County program involves giving the at-risk teens a job for two years, assigning them mentors, offering tutoring and providing career counseling along the way.
A collaborative effort among the county Department of Job & Family Services, Children Services and agencies such as Goodwill Industries, the program began last month with a “boot camp” at the Job Center in Akron.
Nearly 30 teens gathered to play games and listen to a variety of speakers, including Mayfield.
She now works as a clothing specialist, ironically, at Summit County Children Services, the same agency that she was so desperate to escape.
One of eight children, she ended up in foster care after her parents were busted for drug problems.
The Akron woman, who has a 1-year-old child and is not married, dreams of becoming a social worker or counselor so she can help others.
Her advice for those in the system: Take advantage of all the educational opportunities offered and don’t feel sorry for yourself.
“You’re not the only foster kid in the world,” Mayfield said. “Don’t be bitter about it.”
One day at the boot camp, the topics ranged from building credit to how to dress for a job interview to staying out of trouble to riding the bus.
For foster kids, these are big issues.
“Young men, if I can see your underwear, you won’t even start to be interviewed,” Goodwill Industries Director of Career Services Christine Fontaine told them bluntly.
Meanwhile, Robert Sukel, a program manager at Greenleaf Family Center in Akron, advised them to be careful with their cash.
“There are so many people out there trained to separate you from your money,” he said.
On the job
Ten of the teens are working at the Goodwill facility on Waterloo Road in Akron.
“The important part with these kids is teaching basic work skills,” Fontaine said during a recent tour. “We’re trying to instill a work ethic.”
That, of course, and encourage them to pursue a career. They have grown up with a narrow view of the work world and don’t even consider some careers.
“Why can’t you be a registered nurse?” Fontaine asked. “Why can’t you be a chef?”
The Beacon Journal sat down with three teens participating in the Connecting the Dots program at Goodwill.
All three had become emancipated within the last couple of weeks.
They expressed excitement over their newfound freedom and, at the same time, nervousness.
Cortez Brown, 18, of Akron, now lives in his own apartment with financial help from Children Services. He will be training at Stark State College to be an auto technician and also wants to enter the music industry.
His foster parents warned him in advance about the expenses he would face: Rent, utilities and groceries, for example.
“I was kind of worried, kind of scared and it was kind of frightening that I was on my own,” Brown said. “I didn’t have anybody else. I was going to take care of myself. After that [initial feeling], things started to work out for me and I’m starting to get used to it.”
Ashley Hosterman, 18, of Akron, still lives with her foster family. She feels prepared for being on her own.
“I know a lot of things, but maybe not everything,” said Hosterman, who wants to be a massage therapist. “Yes, I am ready. That way I can finally say, ‘This is my home. This is my place.’ ”
But they also questioned whether anyone or any program can truly prepare foster kids for the experience. Sometimes, teens just don’t listen.
“I don’t think anybody can teach you,” said Kara Sweet, 19, who lives at the Highlands shelter because she’s pregnant and is headed to Stark State to study culinary arts and restaurant management. “You have to do it for yourself.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.