Celebrating 10 Years in LA: Reflections and Hopes

Since the 2010 launch of our My First Place™ program in Los Angeles, First Place for Youth has provided housing, education and employment support, and comprehensive wrap-around services to hundreds of young people in foster care as they set themselves on a path for self-sufficiency. As we commemorate our first ten years and face uncertainty and challenge, we’re recommitting ourselves to the work of fighting for just and equitable systems that support foster youth’s success and fulfilling our vision of a world where all young people can rise to reach their full potential.

Throughout 2020, we spoke to members of the First Place team who have been instrumental in our work and our success in Los Angeles. Now, as we move into the new year and our kick off our second ten years, we share a few of their reflections and their hopes for the future.

Claudia Miller

Claudia served as Vice President of Advancement from 2007 through 2020 and was deeply involved in the launch of First Place in Los Angeles, leading fundraising efforts to ensure the program’s stability and capacity to grow.

In your view, what have been First Place’s biggest accomplishments in Los Angeles?

The biggest accomplishment, to me, is the incredible scale and the growth that we’ve had from those first two youth in 2010. We’re now the largest provider in Los Angeles County, a county that has more foster youth than any other state. That’s a remarkable testament to the hard work of the team. If you’d invested in First Place ten years ago, there’s no way you’d have known we’d grow this big this fast, or that we’d have the strong positive youth outcomes and the data to back it up and show that the program works.

Looking forward, what is your hope for the next ten years?

I wish for continued success in the region. I’m so excited by how First Place’s success has impacted others in the community and opened eyes to the fact that so much more is possible for foster youth. This is a population that for far too long has been disregarded and dismissed. Too often people think that, at 18, it’s already too late for young people who’ve grown up in foster care. I think the LA staff and the young people who’ve been through the program have proven that wrong by leaps and bounds. I hope for that to continue, to show the county, the state, and the rest of the country that what works in LA can work anywhere. And it needs to be done. There’s a moral imperative to provide services and give young people hope and actionable steps that they can take for their futures.

Emily Jensen

Emily led our Solano County programs from 2007-12, during which time she supported the establishment of program operations in Los Angeles. She returned to First Place in 2015 and is now Vice President of Programs.

What’s your fondest memory of our work in LA?

I feel like there are so many. We have some of the most remarkable staff and remarkable young people who we are allowed to serve in their journey, so I would say one of the proudest moments that I had was when I went down and started interviewing for staff. I knew we were going to be able to serve in a county where the need is so, so great. And now fast forwarding ten years, knowing that nearly 700 young people have been able to access our amazing staff, access the instrumental relationships that staff build with them over time, and to achieve the goals that they set for themselves.

What have been some of First Place’s biggest accomplishments in the region?

Nobody had ever done a scattered site model in Los Angeles County, so we were the trail blazers of bringing in scattered site and allowing young people to live outside of a congregated living situation. And there was some trepidation in LA around that, about whether a young person coming out of foster care at 18 could live on their own. We knew. We were confident in the model because we’d been doing it in the Bay Area and had a lot of success. So we focused on building our partnership with the Department of Child and Family Services and elevating those shared learnings, and we’re now the largest provider of foster youth services in Los Angeles County.

What is your hope for the next ten years of First Place’s work in LA?

I think the environment right now is a bit unique to even answer that question right? We’re in the middle of the COVID Pandemic, we’re in the middle of continued racial violence and unrest. It’s just continuing to serve the young people that we get to serve in Los Angeles. I can’t say it enough: the ability to serve young people in a way that we know works and to get to walk that path with them and see them grow is a gift. Whether it’s two years of their lives or four years or six months, it’s an amazing gift. So I just want us to be able to remain dedicated to serving in Los Angeles County, partnering with our critical partners to get our young people where they deserve to be and showing that more is possible for our communities.

LaMont Walker

A seven-year veteran of First Place, LaMont is the Education & Employment Manager for Los Angeles, overseeing our Steps to Success career readiness program and working to strengthen education and employment partnerships.

What challenges have you seen the LA team taken on and overcome since joining First Place?

One of the challenges when I first started was limited to low resources for employment and educational opportunities for our young people in South Los Angeles. And we’ve been able to combat that by formulating partnerships with other organizations and businesses in that community to help support our young people becoming employed and getting the education and experience they needed in order to grow within their dreams and in their careers. Now we’re in a great place. Of course, we always want to encourage other employers and educational partnerships to come on board!

What are your hopes for First Place for the next ten years?

I think that First Place has been a beacon of hope for young people in the Los Angeles area, as well as throughout the state of California. I want to keep going, knowing that we can tackle the issue of so many foster youth not having opportunities. I would like to see First Place growing in the capacity in which we can serve young people. And I hope we find an overflow of education and employment partners who are willing to walk with us and our young people in journey of pursuing their dreams and achieving their goals.

Michelle Zajak

Michelle joined First Place in 2012 and currently leads the My First Place™ Network, our national affiliate program,. As Regional Director for Southern California from 2014-2017, she oversaw our Los Angeles program during a time of significant growth.

What changes did you see as Director of the Los Angeles program?

We experienced tremendous growth, so we spent a lot of time focusing on the skill sets we already had in place among staff and what we needed to add to the team to grow with stability. We’d add several staff members within just a few months as the number of young people in program grew. Keeping fidelity of our programs was a challenge, but we were able to do it successfully. As the program grew, we saw an increase in length of stay and young people entering postsecondary education, getting degrees and higher levels of certification, leading to more sustainable living-wage employment opportunities.

What stands out to you about the culture of First Place and the Los Angeles team?

What makes First Place unique is the pairing of real-time data to understand what we’re doing well, where we need to improve, and focusing on those areas of improvement, the relationship-building that happens with young people, and the intentional assessment to understand their needs and strengths and pairing the individualized services to support their goals. The LA team has always been an outspoken bunch with a willingness to improve, and that generates honest and insightful conversations. It’s always about the young people, and their dedication to that is inspiring.

What does it mean to you to see Los Angeles now serving over 200 young people in a year?

It’s amazing. That’s 200 young people who have the opportunity to pursue their goals. LA has grown larger than I think we initially anticipated that it would. There was really intentional planning within First Place about where we needed to be to reduce the barriers preventing young people from engaging with us. So being able to serve that level of young people in the communities that need to be served, it’s a game changer.

Suzanne Brown

A 2019 addition to First Place, Suzanne is the Executive Director for Southern California, leading our fundraising and strategic partnerships to ensure the sustainability of the organization as we move into our next decade of service.

What do you see in the Los Angeles team that explains the success of First Place?

The success of the Southern California team can be contributed to their resilience, commitment, and pure motivation to support our young adults through the critical journey to adulthood. This year, especially, has brought incredible shifts and challenges. Each team member rose to the occasion and made tremendous contributions to our programmatic success. Whether it was making the transition to a virtual work environment while continuing to provide safe, secure housing and quality services, discovering new ways to engage and support  our young people through multiple crises, or helping youth recover from sudden employment loss and persevere through the shift to distance learning, the teams commitment to the success of our young adults is what brought us through. I am honored to serve alongside of such a dedicated team of individuals.

What are your hopes for First Place in Los Angeles as you look toward the next ten years?

As I look forward, my hope is that we’ll see an increasing awareness of foster youth issues and First Place’s work in Southern California, an awareness that reaches beyond the field. I hope that by continuing to partner with providers, young adult leaders, and communities of supporters, our advocacy for an improved foster care system creates such an impact that, one day, the need for transitional housing programs like ours is eradicated. Until then, it is my hope that our donors, foundations and supporters will continue to invest in the hopes and dreams of the incredible young adults we serve.


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