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Behind the Fun, Serious Preparation for Real Life

Times Staff Writer

Ryan thought he was all set. He’d enrolled in college, applied for financial aid, done his grocery shopping and got a restaurant job. But, as often happens in life, things didn’t go exactly as planned.

Instead of getting his waiter uniform free, he found out he would have to pay for it. And then his prospective roommate was in trouble with both the law and his landlord.

It’s just a typical, albeit fictional, day in “U.S. City,” a mock municipality whose young citizens practice life skills they will need when they leave foster care and enter the real world.

Ryan was participating in a recent one-day competition at Rancho San Antonio, a Chatsworth residential facility for boys on probation and in the foster care system. The contest was the culmination of up to a year of instruction on subjects such as money management, apartment hunting, establishing credit, resume writing, social skills and even emergency preparedness.

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To make it more enticing, teenage boys at the facility competed for donated prizes such as bicycles and computers, and the dorm with the highest collective score got a trip to ride the roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

The boys were tested on whether they had kept a balanced (although a dummy) checkbook and demonstrated frugality -- by, for example, buying furniture at the pretend garage sale instead of the department store.

“We tell them not to worry about the judging. Just set up a good life, and you’ll do well,” said Steve Hooper, director of education for Rancho.

But behind the fun are some serious considerations in getting the boys ready for freedom.

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“They have the most issues to overcome, the least amount of support in the community” and are expected to start living on their own earlier than many other teenagers, Hooper said.

Preparation for U.S. City -- which stands for Urban Survival City -- is extensive. In addition to a year-round life skills class, the boys learn about careers for four months. In January, they received fictitious jobs and salaries ranging from $900 to $1,600 a month to practice planning.

In the contest, they had five hours to set up their life by finding a roommate, renting an apartment, activating utilities, establishing a bank account, getting transportation and securing insurance while dealing with the unexpected. They visited various stations on campus representing a rental office, bank, courthouse, medical center, grocery store and other sites -- run by Rancho staff and actual college and bank officials.

At least once during the fourth annual event, each boy was handed a slip of paper outlining a “twist of fate.” A few were desirable, like winning a $100 sweepstakes or receiving an unexpected $50 tax refund. But most were unwanted, such as being arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana, getting behind on child support payments or bouncing a check.

For Rancho’s 106 boys, ages 13 to 18, the simulated city was realistic.

“I feel a little stressed out. I’m getting a little irritated, but it’s cool,” Ryan, a former drug addict who has been sober seven months, said about halfway through the event. “I just take a deep breath and don’t get mad.”

Although he felt prepared going into the contest, Ryan realized he still had plenty to learn.

“Stuff has been coming up by surprise,” the 17-year-old said. “It was harder than I thought it would be -- a lot harder.”

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His prospective roommate, Scott, was also feeling the heat. He received a $50 ticket for being disrespectful to a mock police officer before learning, in one of the mythical twists of fate, that a different roommate had trashed an apartment and couldn’t pay for the damage.

“This has been way hard. I thought we’d just knock this out, but we still have things to do, like getting housing and furniture, doing taxes and getting transportation,” said Scott, 17, a former gang member with a 14-month-old daughter. “This is a great opportunity to get prepared for real life.”

Jacob, 16, said he learned an important lesson by getting jury duty as a twist of fate.

“All of a sudden, I have to stop what I’m doing and go to the courthouse. I learned that no matter how much you plan, things happen,” said Jacob, who landed at Rancho after violating probation by smoking marijuana.

The twist-of-fate element is a “big reality check,” said Rey, who participated in U.S. City last year. The 18-year-old, emancipated in November, considers himself lucky to have experienced only a couple of bumps in the real road, such as a flat tire and getting a traffic ticket while not carrying his car registration. But when something bigger happens, he believes, he’ll be better prepared, in part thanks to U.S. City.

Adult life “is more than just the simple stuff, like paying a gas bill. There are way more things to consider. Anything can happen,” said Rey, who attends Cal State Northridge, works in a department store and lives in transitional housing on the Rancho campus. “The competition helped to open up my eyes.”

Observing the contest was Leigh Brumberg, a specialist in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Neglected or Delinquent Children’s Program, which provides tutors for foster group homes.

Although the competition is meant to be stressful, the teenagers “come out on the other side learning that stress isn’t inherently a negative thing if we learn and grow from it,” said Brumberg, a former probation officer and teacher. “This experience could be the only thing that comes close to helping them know what it’s like when they turn 18.”

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Beyond the Rancho San Antonio program, there are various ways to prepare other teenagers in similar situations for emancipation. Many foster agencies offer life skills classes, as do some other residential facilities. Limited space is also available in a five-week Independent Living Program course at community colleges.

“We’re supposed to teach them everything to be prepared for the world, but there’s only so much we can get across to them in a lecture-style format,” said Brandy Hudson, who teaches such a course at Pasadena City College. “It’s always a big struggle, since they have varying levels of education. Some don’t speak English very well, and others can’t read.”

Having more hands-on, in-depth training like what the Rancho San Antonio classes and contest offer would help, she and other teachers across Southern California say.

Hudson should know. Born drug-addicted, she entered foster care when only 2 weeks old. Although she completed an Independent Living Program at age 16, she said she wasn’t at all equipped for adulthood when she was emancipated at 19.

“You don’t realize how ill-prepared you are until you’re expected to live on your own,” she said.


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