Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jeremiah's Promise

Youth 'aged out' of foster care get a helping hand at Sunnyvale transitional home
Kraatz, Cody. Sunnyvale Sun, Dec. 3, 2008.

The instability of Marina Galan's youth began with her shuttling between her mother and father's home. It was replaced when she entered foster care at age 3 by the repeated shocks and insecurity of shuttling between foster homes.

A foster father and uncle abused her. She lived with her aunt in Modesto. These were only the earliest of many more moves.

Galan, now 18, has lived for two months in an otherwise unremarkable house on a quiet southern Sunnyvale cul-de-sac, a group home operated by the faith-based nonprofit Jeremiah's Promise.

The home can accommodate six women ages 18 to 21, each of whom "aged out," or were emancipated from the foster care system at age 18, and the government stopped paying to support them.

Jeremiah's selects them for their resiliency, their readiness for guidance and their sincere desire to better their future, and they stay for a year or two until they're ready to move out on their own.

Between 130 and 150 young people in Santa Clara County and nearly 4,500 in the state age out each year. They are far more likely to be poor, homeless, jobless, incarcerated and out of school than their peers, studies show.

Jeremiah's Promise is one of several local organizations that try to smooth the rough edges of the jarring aging-out process with transitional housing, a life skills program and a supportive environment.

Shifting sands
As with many other foster children, the sands of Galan's life continued to shift as she moved from her aunt's home to group homes in Los Gatos, Fremont, Watsonville and Aptos in the span of about seven years. She learned along the way to stand up for herself, because fights were common.

"I've been really used to this environment since I was 3-years old," says Galan. "When I walk into a house, I try to walk in with confidence. When I meet someone new I meet them with confidence, because I don't want them to underestimate me."

Her brother tracked down her father, a truck driver who remarried and lives with his wife and their children in San Jose, when she was 17 and living in Aptos. The stress shook her up.

"I'm starting to build a relationship with my dad. Since I just met him, it takes time. Nothing happens overnight," she says in an interview at the Jeremiah's Promise house after a November dinner with local adults interested in mentoring the young women.

Galan recalls a "team decision-making" meeting held with key case workers and guardians when she was 17, just after her father had come back into her life. They asked her whether she would rather move in with her mother or her father at that point. Her mother told her at the time that there would be no repercussions either way.

"I said I would like to live with my dad. After I said, it she just basically left. She didn't want anything to do with me," says Galan, who doesn't know where her mother is now. "I started acting out and running away because my mom left me."

She spent a couple of hours in Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall on charges of trespassing after her Aptos group home kicked her out because of her behavior. The Bill Wilson Center's Quetzal House in Santa Clara was her next home, but she continued to run away and was eventually kicked out.

"I was on my own for a month, hanging out with gangs and drug dealers. I realized,`I'm almost 18. What am I going to do? I'm going to be homeless if I keep up this pace,'" she says.

She went to a children's shelter, and eventually a social worker found her a bed at Rebekah Children's Services in Gilroy, where she lived for her last four months in foster care.

"I have nowhere to go," she recalls thinking. She couldn't live with her father because of "complications" with his family, she says. Her mother was gone.

"I was freaking out. I was like,`Dad, I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go,' " she says. "And he said,`Just pray.' "

Weeks before she had to leave Rebekah, she found Jeremiah's Promise. She recalls thinking, "Oh my gosh. This is the place. I want to be here."

The fact that the nonprofit is Christian-focused convinced her that it was the answer to her prayers. Its name is a Biblical reference to Jeremiah 29:11, in which God tells a group of exiles that he has "plans to give you hope and a future."

Familial environment
The small staff and volunteers try to "build a familial environment," says Enza Canicatti, the residence manager or "mother hen," as she puts it.

Kim Golter, CEO and founder of the nonprofit, was a court-appointed child advocate in 2000 when she learned about the challenges faced by aged-out youth.

"You can't just stick them in an apartment and say, 'OK, you've got housing. We've taken care of you,'" says Golter, who moved the program from an older Palo Alto house into the newly purchased Sunnyvale house in January. The young people who age out may be 18 chronologically, but emotionally they are much younger.

"They crave the involvement of each person in their community. That's what causes the transformation," Golter says.

Canicatti faces an uphill battle sometimes in trying to turn the housemates into a household. They watch movies and will spend time together during the holidays.

Sandra Philpott, who oversees a similar house for young men as director of transitional housing at San Jose-based Unity Care Group, says that it requires a balance of nurturing and stepping back that is even more exacting than raising typical teenagers.

Every Thursday night, Canicatti invites someone to the house to give a life skills workshop. Often it tackles topics such as budgeting, resume-building or interviewing — things that a parent might otherwise teach.

Lately, she has been inviting people in the community to tell their life stories, which show that "despite where you come from, you can now make a road for yourself [and] use your pain as a personal passion for life," she says.

Tonight, it's Mimi Moseley, a gregarious blonde director of women's ministries at Valley Church in Cupertino. In a ring of chairs on the living room's hardwood floor, she describes the pain of growing up with alcoholic parents.

She used drugs, struggled with anorexia and was devastated by her father's death from alcoholism and her mother's abrupt gunshot suicide. But after opening herself up to a loving religious community and a good husband, she turned around.

"We have to be in community. We can't do this ourselves," Moseley says before offering the young women an ear anytime they need to talk.

After a silence, resident Leslie Zamora, 19, says, "I think everyone's pain is ... not the same but equal."

"The stuff that people go through, that's what makes you who you are today," adds Galan. Rather than regretting or trying to forget those experiences, she integrates them in very personal poems and into her understanding of the paths life offers.

Ground rules
Like the firm but supportive parents that these young women lack, Jeremiah's Promise has earnest expectations. The curfew is 11 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. Chores are divvied up.

They get their privacy, which is extremely important after years of having very little control or personal space. Since two new residents moved in last week, bringing the total to five, most have to share rooms.

"Basically, if you want to stay here, you have to have a job," says Galan, who recently started working in the deli at the nearby Safeway store on Hollenbeck Avenue. "They were really pushing for me to have a job, which is good."

Thirty percent of the residents' earnings are collected as "rent" and deposited into individual savings accounts. By the time they move out, it's enough for a deposit on an apartment or to pay for other expenses. Zamora recently landed a job at Ross after two weeks at the house.

She is cooking chicken flautas in hot oil on the stove, a recipe that she learned from her family. She has an uncle in Redwood City, where she lived in transitional housing until she was kicked out for breaking curfew, and a grandmother in San Mateo.

Her comfort in the kitchen — a sort of home-building catalyst — belies her anxiety before moving into the house.

"You don't know anybody. You've got to get used to them and they've got to get used to your ways," she says, adding, "It's exciting, too because you could end up meeting someone or making a good friend."

Earlier, she and Galan were playfully snapping close-ups together on one of their cell phones in the study, a room with a large conference table, laptops, a combo printer and books about healthy relationships and job hunting.

To learn more about Jeremiah's Promise, visit

I'm sad filled with agony my heart is numb cuz of all the sorrow that fills it.

I sit in a room full of rage I try to find the part of me that"s pleased.
But with all the hurt I have there is no room for the happiness that I need.
I just wonder how I can feel so unloved with everybody beside me!
Why am I so afraid to find the love for me!
Why am I so insecure in my personality!
I don't want to feel the hate inside of me!
I don"t want to be rejected anymore so please HELP me find the joy that I once carried in me!!!!
"” Marina Galan

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