Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mr. J teaches life skill classes, conducts five college visits a year

County program gets foster kids on right track
Moody, Shelah. San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 25, 2008. pg. G2.

As head trainer for Alameda County's Independent Living Skills Program, Robert Jemerson helps foster children make successful transitions into adulthood.

The program was established in 1988, when the federal government began to take a hard look at the difficulties young men and women were experiencing when they "aged out" of the foster care system at age 19 and had to face life on their own.

Jemerson, who worked as a counselor in a juvenile detention facility before he joined the program, said every state in the United States was given an opportunity to help make the outcomes better. "That's when I got involved - that's right up my alley," he said.

Known to his students as "Mr. J," Jemerson teaches life-skills classes to foster youths ages 15 to 19 and emancipated youths up to age 24. The students learn about housing and home maintenance, education and vocational training, money management, legal rights and responsibilities, transportation and health care.

Most children end up in the foster care system because of abuse, neglect or abandonment by their birth parents. If they don't learn the skills needed for daily living, they're susceptible to homelessness, unplanned pregnancy, drug abuse, criminality and even suicide.

"Trying to get a kid at age 18 to take on the (role) of an adult is very much impossible," said Jemerson.

"It's a process; we have to work with hard- and soft-skills development. I find that without knowledge of the intangible, the 'soft skills' such as communication and self-esteem and assertiveness, that the hard-skills development, such as money management and finding housing, don't work," he said. "We work with image enhancements and conflict resolution. A lot of these kids are bitter. One of my sayings is 'Don't be bitter, be better.' We work on how to be better. We work on communication, both verbal and written, and decision making and problem solving. We also work on time management and setting long-term and short-term goals."

To graduate from the program, high school seniors must complete all of their classes and have a written comprehensive emancipation plan, which Jemerson helps them develop. Last year, 109 students graduated.

Graduation takes place at the Hilton Oakland Airport Hotel on the first Friday in June, and Jemerson emcees at the ceremony. Graduates receive certificates, and winners of the Independent Living Skills scholarship are honored.

After Jemerson helps his clients get either their high school diplomas or GEDs, he encourages them to pursue higher education by helping them with college applications and financial aid packages.

"In our last report, I'm proud to say, we had over 260 youngsters in community colleges and four-year universities all over the nation," said Jemerson.

Jemerson conducts five college tours a year, and his students have gone on to UC Berkeley, Stanford, St. Mary's College, Yale, Cornell, Oxford and Morehouse College. One of his success stories is Sade Daniels, a young poet who had been in the foster care system since age 14. Now a freshman at Clark Atlanta University, Daniels has spoken at several engagements on behalf of the Independent Living Skills Program.

"She's a wonderful kid," said Jemerson. "She's outstanding; a very inspiring story."

The program also partners with other organizations that provide activities for foster children and emancipated youth.

In 2006, Jemerson and Fred Bowe, current president of the Rotary Club of Oakland Sunrise, District 5170 formed the first Rotary Interact Club for foster children ages 14 to 18. It promotes leadership skills such as volunteerism and public speaking. Last year, the club gave away more than 30 food baskets to needy families and also raised money for two wheelchairs to be donated to convalescent homes. In 2007, Jemerson used his own money to help send two foster youths to Ghana to participate in the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards program.

"I have over 200 partners, and I want to get the community to realize that these young men and young women are really our responsibility," said Jemerson. "My goal is to get as many of our young people housed as possible and to have them continue to educate themselves to get scholarships to help in this process, and to send many of them as goodwill ambassadors on trips in the U.S. and abroad. I feel that when people go abroad, they educate themselves further. Also, I'd like to have our young people get involved in community service."

Born in Jackson, Miss., Jemerson moved to the Bay Area as a preteen. After a year at Laney College, Jemerson attended UC Berkeley, where he earned a degree in political science. He went on to Hastings College of the Law, where he received his juris doctorate, although he never practiced law.

Part of Jemerson's passion for helping foster children began with his own experience. His parents, Edgar and Aylne Jemerson, took in his childhood friend Ed as a teenager.

"His mother went back home to Louisiana and left him here," said Jemerson. "He was my friend, and I wanted to help him. I asked my dad if we could help Ed. Dad, being an old Southern gentleman, said, 'Let's do this.' He lived with us for one year until he graduated from Berkeley High with me."

For more information, visit or

Each week, The Chronicle features a Bay Area resident who has won a Jefferson Award for making a difference in his or her community.

The awards are administered by the American Institute for Public Service, a national foundation that honors community service. Bay Area residents profiled in The Chronicle are also featured on CBS 5-TV and KCBS-AM, which are Jefferson Award media partners, along with The Chronicle.


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