When kids leave home after graduating from high school, they need to know basic life skills such as cooking, driving and paying bills.
But learning those skills can be especially hard for foster kids whose parents may not be involved in their lives.
The nonprofit organization Court Appointed Special Advocates of Jackson County is helping to fill in the gaps.
CASAs are volunteers who advocate for kids and help them navigate the child welfare and family court systems.
Now the volunteers are going a step further, helping kids learn life skills through CASA of Jackson County’s Mentoring Youth Toward Independence Program.
Delaney Bradley entered the foster care system at age 12.
The 18-year-old just graduated from Crater High School’s Academy of Health and Public Services and plans to attend Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University to become a nurse.
Bradley had two CASAs during his time in foster care.
“They both taught me about time management and stress management,” he said. “I think those are two key factors to being independent.”
When he first went to live with his foster family, Bradley didn’t interact with them. For two years, he isolated himself in his room, coming out only to eat and drink.
His CASAs encouraged him to begin trusting his foster family and let them into his heart, he said.
“So I took their advice, and after that, it really started getting easier. And now I think my foster family is my family,” he said.
When he started high school, Bradley planned to quit doing sports.
But his second CASA, a track and cross-country enthusiast, encouraged him to stick with running. He also encouraged Bradley to live a healthful lifestyle.
Sports offered a way for Bradley to fit in and find a friend group.
“It’s very difficult for a foster kid to feel like they fit in because everyone talks about their parents. But you don’t live with your parents when you’re in foster care,” he said.
Bradley tackled the 800-meter, 1,500-meter and 3,000-meter runs. In his junior year, he won the district championship in the 1,500.
“So that was a high point in my life,” he said. “I was very proud of that. My CASA definitely helped me work toward that goal, because I definitely wanted to win a big race in my high school career.”
Bradley said it was great to have the encouragement of people cheering him on as he ran.
“It really touched me in my later years of high school,” he said.
Bradley generally kept the fact that he was a foster kid to himself. If people found out, he said they would give him a “pity party" — and he didn’t want that. Bradley said he’s grateful that his foster family helped him live a better life.
Wenonoa Spivak, deputy director for CASA of Jackson County, said the CASAs who work with teens in the Mentoring Youth Toward Independence Program get special training to understand the challenges the teens face. The mentoring program launched in January.
In Oregon, youths age out of the foster care system from age 18 to 24, depending on their circumstances, Spivak said.
They have to decide what path to follow, from enrolling in college or a vocational program to joining the military, she said.
“They also face challenges of how do they find housing? Where are they going to live? How are they going to pay for that?” she said.
Many kids don’t know how to make an appointment to see a doctor or dentist, Spivak said.
AllCare Health, a local organization managing Oregon Health Plan benefits for low-income residents, has invested in the program to help teens learn life skills.
Studies have shown that if a kid has one caring, competent adult in his or her life, long-term health improves, said Susan Fischer-Maki, health and education manager for AllCare Health.
“When children are cared for, when they’re taught these additional life skills, we see them being proactive about making healthy choices,” she said.
They are more likely to delay sexual activity, avoid addictive substances, earn high school diplomas, pursue career training and stay out of the criminal justice system, Fischer-Maki said.
CASA is making sure kids who age out of foster care don’t wake up one day without any support, she said.
“They’re there to help nurture that youth until they can truly be independent,” she said.
Megan Kimball, coordinator of the mentoring program for CASA, said foster kids face many hurdles to gain life skills.
Learning to drive is a right of passage for many teens.
But without access to the family car, a parent to teach the basics of driving, and insurance, foster kids have to find another way.
Funding is available to help foster kids take driving courses and pass tests to get their licenses, according to CASA.
But one CASA in particular went above and beyond the call of duty, Spivak said.
“A CASA said, ‘I will teach you to drive. You can use my car for the exam.’ She took that on because she knew there was no other way it was going to happen. It was like it was her own child,” Spivak said.
Another CASA was working with a young man who had dropped out of high school and was working three low-wage jobs. The CASA helped him craft a resume to apply for one higher-paying job with benefits. She is also helping him connect with a GED program, Spivak said.
Some teens go out into the world with their credit already ruined by biological parents who stole their identities, she said.
CASAs are helping teens learn how to check their credit scores, understand the difference between debit and credit cards, make a budget and go to the grocery store with a list so they buy nutritious food they can afford, Kimball said.
Bradley, the foster teen who recently graduated, said his CASA taught him study skills when he was stressing out over his advanced placement calculus class.
He plans to use those skills in college as he pursues his nursing degree.
Once he’s caring for patients, Bradley said, he thinks his experiences as a foster kid will help him have more empathy for them as they recover from serious accidents and other health problems.
He wants to pass on the lesson he learned from his CASAs to trust those who want to help you and never give up.
“I think when a lot of people hit rock bottom, they kind of give up for maybe a year or two,” Bradley said. “But I’m hoping that using my past experiences, I can fast-track that process and help them recover faster.”