First Place for Youth
Jan 24, 2022
For 23-year-old Karla, a recent graduate of our My First Place™ program, her experience provided a life-changing opportunity to prepare for the challenging responsibilities of adulthood while in a safe and supportive environment. When Karla was 14 and living in an abusive home, she made the difficult decision to change her circumstances. Knowing it would likely result in being removed from her home and a foster care placement, she contacted child welfare services to report the abuse.
“My living conditions were something a child shouldn’t be dealing with,” Karla said, explaining that despite the uncertainty of what foster care would bring, she recognized it as her best option for safety and stability.
Once in foster care, Karla returned her attention to more typical teenage concerns. However, as the end of high school approached and the realities of growing up in foster care became clearer, Karla understood that her path to adulthood would not be as smooth as her peers. At 18, during her senior year of high school, Karla moved out of her foster home to a Supervised Independent Living Program (SILP). She entered California’s extended foster care system, designed to support foster youth between the ages of 18 and 21 as they prepare for independence. Karla received a monthly stipend for basic living expenses, which she put toward renting a room from a friend’s parents–all while completing her senior year. Despite years of self-reliance, Karla quickly realized the difference between believing she could take care of herself and the reality that came with being independent while still in high school.
“I had to learn how to manage my money and make sure I had all my needs met. I didn’t have anyone to turn to for my essentials. I’d always felt independent, but for the first time, it was real, real.”
Though she remembers her friend’s parents as being supportive, renting a room wasn’t the same as having a home. Karla never lost sight of the harsh truth that she was a tenant, not a family member. “It was only a temporary situation. I wasn’t going to stay for a long time, just until I finished high school.”
After her high school graduation, Karla enrolled in a transitional housing program for non-minor dependents (THP-NMD) in Napa County. After a year in Napa, Karla decided to further her education, enrolled at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, and transferred to a housing program in Contra Costa County. Although Karla was making steady progress in college, she was nearing age 21, and her time in extended foster care was running out. Unfortunately, that meant facing the end of her eligibility for housing under either SILP or THP-NMD.
When the notice came that her time to leave the program was approaching, Karla took stock of her situation. Despite her best efforts, she knew she was in a precarious position. She wasn’t yet earning a full living wage and was only halfway to completing her degree. “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t ready,” she admitted when asked how she felt about facing the end of extended foster care. “It was very scary, but my social worker mentioned First Place for Youth as an option. I spoke to the county manager, and she was so nice and super willing to help,” Karla said of her initial contact with First Place. “Obviously, she didn’t promise me anything because there was the process they had to go through, but she said, ‘we’ll see what we can do.’ Then she kept in contact with me. Constant contact, so I knew in the back of my mind that I had an option.”
As a THP-NMD and THP-Plus provider in Contra Costa County, First Place offers housing and services to current participants in extended foster care and former foster youth up to age 24. Entering the My First Place program through THP-Plus meant Karla would have almost three additional years of security and support as she worked toward goals that would put her on firmer footing.
Once a space became available and Karla moved into her My First Place apartment, was able to return focus to the future. She had identified financial stability as a high priority and resumed saving and establishing good credit.
“I used to get my paycheck and put a huge portion into savings and pretend like that money does not belong to me, and I can’t touch it until I need it. I’m also consistently paying my car note. That helped me build really good credit.” Karla shared when asked about her approach to building her financial stability.
While in school, Karla began working as an aide for the campus police department, which opened her eyes to how much she enjoyed working with the public and working well in stressful situations. As she moved up the ranks and built relationships with officers, Karla became invested in a law-enforcement career path.
“There was one call in particular,” Karla said when recalling her decision to pursue policing. “We were responding to a drunk driving accident. It might have scared somebody else, but it just made me realize: ‘I want to do this. I want to continue to help people. I’m in the right place.’
So, after mentorship and guidance from the department lieutenant, Karla applied to the Hercules Police Department.
Karla’s success in the police academy comes as no surprise to her First Place team. Casey Rodriguez, Karla’s former Youth Advocate, expressed,
“Karla is a rockstar! It has been a privilege to work with such an amazing young woman. I am in awe of her ability to overcome and surpass the demanding mental, physical, and emotional challenges she has faced during [her training] at the Police Academy. I know Karla’s resiliency, humility, drive, and courage will continue to lead her to even greater successes in the future.”
When it comes to reflecting on what First Place has meant to her, Karla is hard-pressed to pick the best part:
“Overall, the program is very important. I’m extremely thankful. I know programs like this didn’t use to exist. That’s extremely scary to think about because, at 18, I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do with my life. I was barely thinking about college. At 21, I wasn’t financially ready. So, for me, and for a lot of youth who are coming out of foster care or other programs, it’s a huge benefit to have First Place to help you, guide you, and allow you to grow, so you’re in better shape, you’re ok.”
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