FAIRFIELD — Tanya Ortega just graduated from high school and is beginning college in the fall.
She is also working.
As a foster youth, the 18-year-old has bucked the statistics that show fewer than 60 percent of foster youths graduate from high school and fewer than 5 percent finish college. Fewer than 50 percent are employed.
At age 8, Ortega’s mother surrendered her and her siblings when she couldn’t care for them after the father left two years prior. When Ortega was 10, her mother’s parental rights were terminated. She harbors no grudges.
“I wasn’t mad at my mom,” she said. “I understood she couldn’t support us. I was actually mad at my dad for leaving us.”
In elementary school, she was left contemplating life without a mother. She was scared, she said, but still felt what her mother did, she did “for the best.”
Her story is one of several that make up the foster youths and former foster youths involved in the Youth Action Team, which is part of the Independent Living Skills Program and First Place for Youth.
“The Youth Action Team is the voice for other foster youth,” Ortega said as she sat in one of the offices of the First Place for Youth building on the corner of Travis Boulevard and North Texas Street. Group members help their peers and they also work with foster parents, social workers and anyone interested in learning about foster youth.
“They put together a presentation and go out and talk to adults in the community who work with foster youth,” said Tiffany Puckett, the Independent Living Skills program supervisor. A lot of focus is on understanding and communicating with the youths, she said.
As she sat in the office, Ortega was getting ready to participate in a meeting to discuss the graduation ceremony Youth Action Team conducted recently. Members laughed and joked during the meeting, showing a clear bond that only they could understand, given what life had given them. They also prepared for a life skills workshop they were putting on at the Solano County Office of Education for foster youth.
“Everyone comes from different paths in life,” said Jacquie Hernandez, 18. “I think it’s cool how we get together and try to improve things.”
Part of the presentations they give involve opening up and telling their stories. They give their views on what it’s like to be in foster care, so others can better understand their struggles. They’ve opened up to varying degrees, but all said the initial step in telling their story was a tough one.
Ortega tells her story mostly with ease. Hernandez, not so much.
“I haven’t told it yet but I’ve kind of used examples,” she said. “In a sense, I’m scared. I just kind of want to let it go . . .”
Susan Harris, the education advocate for First Foundation/Independent Living Skills Program, said Hernandez is still living her story.
“Not only is she going through (it) but she’s trying to educate and shed light on the whole process,” Harris said.
Harris said being part of the Youth Action Team shows participants they have a voice and can advocate for others based on their experiences.
“We’re able to support them in finding their voice,” she said.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.