Jessica Towns twists her hands as she surveys the tables of gray-haired Optimist Club members.
A veteran of nine group homes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the 16-year-old has so much to say about a shortage of homes for foster teens. If she can only get it out.
After faltering a minute, Jessica gathers courage and tells the hushed room in Ventura that teens like her badly need the care and structure of a family--even if some won't admit it.
"Most foster parents look for younger kids, and most of them have a negative view of foster teens," she said. "But please don't judge someone by what you've heard. We need a home just as much as a younger kid."
The Port Hueneme teenager is one of 350 current and former foster youths in California, ages 14 to 24, who are speaking up about what needs to be done to improve the system that raised them.
Members of a nonprofit group called California Youth Connection, the youths do the service-club rounds, hold statewide conferences and make annual lobbying trips to the state Capitol to push their issues.
In the decade since they organized, foster kids have backed legislation that gives them more help when they become too old for the system. They also won the right to learn what happens to brothers and sisters in other foster homes and forced a change that makes it easier to keep track of school transcripts as they shuffle from one city to another.
Now the group is focusing on an even tougher challenge: changing negative perceptions about youths who grow up in the child welfare system.
Some view foster kids as delinquents. Suspicion only grows for teens, said Janet Knipe, executive director of the state organization. But most children are taken into protective custody because of parental neglect, Knipe said, and are there through no fault of their own.
"America has a lot of fears and confusion around young people in general," Knipe said. "You put someone in foster care on top of that, and it perpetuates a myth that these are troubled young children who did something wrong."
The result, she said, is that teens often get passed from one home to another, frequently ending up in institutional settings when other options are exhausted.
Brenda Cervantez, 19, knows the roller coaster well.
She was 11 on the terrifying day that she, her sister and brother were taken from their Oxnard home.
They were told they couldn't stay together because it's rare to find someone willing to care for several siblings. A family quickly took in her little brother, but it was tougher to place Brenda and her sister.
After a short stay at a group home and then a year with a foster mom who was "a bad fit," the girls ended up with another woman for four years. When that foster mother started partying a little too much, Cervantez said, she was sent to Casa Pacifica, a children's shelter near Camarillo.
"It's a good program," she said. "But it was very restrictive and kind of like a juvenile hall. We needed freedom."
The girls eventually ended up at their grandmother's Oxnard home, where Cervantez now lives. She learned about California Youth Connection when she was 16, attended a meeting and has been hooked ever since.
Once the shyest kid in class, Cervantez now is the Ventura County chapter president and has spoken to dozens of community groups about the teens' concerns. In February, she and other CYC members went to Sacramento, where they met with legislators to ask for support on bills.
She recently won a college scholarship and plans to earn a degree in social work.
"I always wanted to change the system for the better," Cervantez says softly. "CYC showed me I can do it and that I'm a somebody. . . . Nobody is going to bite my head off for saying what I feel."
Modeled after a Canadian group, the California Youth Connection started as a loose association of chapters in 1988, Knipe said. A statewide office opened in 1995 and there are now chapters in 22 counties.
Foster youths drive the agenda, she said, because they are in the best position to know what needs to change. At the top of their legislative list is extending state-provided services after age 18, when they typically are forced out of the system.
The group has had some success in getting help with college costs, jobs and housing after 18. But the push now is to pass AB 1119, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), which would give teens the option of staying in foster care until age 21.
Foster care payments would be made directly to the youths or to a caregiver who agrees to house them, Knipe said. This makes sense, she said, when you consider that many children don't leave home until their mid-20s.
"If it's taking other young people until age 26 to become really self-sufficient, and we are requiring foster kids to do it at 18, we are setting them up to fail," Knipe said.
Another bill, AB 899, would require social workers to frequently remind foster children of their rights. This is important, foster teens say, because children often are unaware that they are allowed to do such things as attend after-school activities or even to get a job, Knipe said.
Some teens who join CYC say they feel they are part of something positive for the first time in their lives. Jessica said she bounced around several foster homes in Lancaster and Los Angeles after she was taken from her mother's care.
When she was moved to a Ventura County group home last year, it was her ninth placement in seven years. Then she dropped into a CYC meeting.
"As soon as I walked into the room, I felt a sense of belonging," she said. "Plus, I want to make a difference for other kids in foster care so they don't go through the same experience that I did."
She was recently reunited with her mother and is now attending Channel Islands High School in Oxnard. She wants to be a lawyer for foster children after college, Jessica said.
Speaking to groups about her childhood was difficult. But CYC offers public speaking workshops and, after some practice, it's getting a little easier, she said.
"It was hard at first," Jessica said. "But now I know that it's not my fault, and I don't blame myself anymore."
That willingness to overcome personal barriers for the sake of others is what Knipe finds most impressive about the teens in the program.
"They won't reap the benefits themselves," she said. "They're doing it for the kids left behind."