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Nonprofit mentors foster children toward a path to success

The RightWay Foundation teaches life skills training for teens in foster care
Tender Greens restaurants run an internship program for young adults leaving foster care
Mentors teach the value of relationships for young people whose lives have always been marked by impermanence

Nikel Hall has a resume loaded with volunteer work: She's helped out at preschools, a library, a convalescent home and an animal shelter. But she's never managed to land a paying job.

The 18-year-old has been in foster care since she was 8, shuffled between impersonal group homes and among strangers paid to care for her. "Moving around so much," she said, "it's hard to get somebody to hire you when you don't even know what address to put on the form."

That's just one problem that teens in foster care face when looking for work. Most have checkered academic records because they've changed schools so often. Many lack the confidence and social skills that children learn at home. Some have never had anyone talk to them about what self-sufficiency requires.

That's why so many age out of the foster care system and into dysfunction. More than half are unemployed, one-third are homeless, and 40% are on government assistance in their early 20s.

Their options are improving. There are grants available for job training or college. The age of emancipation from foster care has been raised, so that young people can move gradually toward independence between the ages of 18 and 21. And employers have shown a willingness to hire young people who've come through the foster care system.

But that doesn't mean much if those young people are not prepared for the world of work.

"Everyone has a soft spot for foster care youth, and that's a good thing," said Franco O. Vega, who's been finding jobs for hard-luck cases for 18 years. "They know this is a population that didn't ask for what they got; they didn't deserve it.

"These kids are survivors, and they deserve a chance," said Vega, whose nonprofit, the RightWay Foundation, provides job preparation and life skills training to teens in foster care.

Vega grew up in that system. His father died when he was 10; his mother was abusive. At 15 — when he was locked up in probation camp — Vega's luck changed. "A family adopted me and gave me that little taste of love I needed," he said.

He spent three years in the Army, enrolled in college and built a career helping displaced workers and unskilled people find employment. While working on skid row, he was struck by how many of his homeless clients had come through the foster care system and never found their footing.

"You can have all these opportunities in place, but if you don't get kids prepared to take advantage of that, what's the point?" Vega said.

That's what brought Nikel and a hundred other foster youths to USC at 8 a.m. Saturday for a daylong workshop called You Control Your Success, sponsored by Vega's foundation.

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The volunteer mentors in Saturday's sessions covered the sort of basics that parents share with their job-hunting children:

Take out the nose piercings, cover the tattoos, choose the plain gray skirt over that cute purple plaid. Make sure your hands aren't sweaty and your breath doesn't stink. Don't overdo the perfume.

"And remember, there is nothing less impressive than showing up late," Kate Briggs warned her group. "'On time' means early. Don't sabotage yourself."

Briggs runs an internship program at Tender Greens restaurants for young adults leaving foster care. Most program grads stay on as full-time employees. "Many are paying for their first apartments, completing their GEDs and working their way up in the restaurants," she said.

She gave her teens the tough-love version of how to get and keep a job:

Be honest, but not too honest. It's probably best not to say — as one high school student did in a role-playing interview — that your favorite subject is P.E. and your weakness is that you tend to get into arguments.

Adjust the privacy settings on your social media accounts. It's embarrassing to call in sick, then realize your boss has seen those party photos you posted the night before.

No slang, no cursing. Don't lose your cool if a coworker is annoying or a customer is rude. Don't date anyone you work with. And don't bad-mouth anyone.

"You never know," Briggs said, "when someone from your past will be in a position to help you."

That was a message about the value of relationships for young people whose lives have always been marked by impermanence.

And on those mornings, Briggs said, when you're tempted to blow off that $9-an-hour gig and stay in bed instead, think about that big screen TV, that new iPhone, that apartment you want with the picture window and soft carpet.

"Plan how you're going to spend your money," she said. "Let that motivate you."

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Mentor Natalie Ramberg didn't seem to fit in with the foster care kids she was leading. She's a graduate of Yale, and a yoga instructor who spoke in dulcet tones about following your dreams and visualizing success.

But she's also a product of Canada's foster care system and understands that success requires a mix of hustle and luck.

Her question about career goals drew mostly blank stares, until Nikel piped up. The teen with the long volunteer pedigree wants to be "successful in the entertainment field."

Natalie gently asked her to describe success. "A gripload of money" Nikel said. I tried not to laugh.

"Gripload of money" didn't make it onto Ramberg's white-board list of career rewards, which focused on big-picture stuff like better health and the chance to help others.

But what Nikel really meant was something just as important: The stability and independence that's in short supply in most foster children's lives.

"It's having a house I can walk into and not have somebody saying 'pick up your shoes,'" she said. "It's having the ability to say 'I want to go to the movies today' and know that I can pay for that."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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