Seventeen years ago, Kristi Perez discovered that foster kids were receiving little support once they aged out of the system. She heard that once they turned 18, they were given a trash bag for their belongings, wished good luck and sent out into the world. After digging into the research, she discovered that 8% of former foster youth go to college and only 3% graduate.
Inspire Life Skills Training was founded with the goal of preparing these youth to transition to adulthood and break the cycle of poverty and broken homes. Girls in foster care are 6 times more likely to have a child before the age of 21 and 70% of all state penitentiary inmates have spent time in foster care, according to Perez.
“There was no proactive program to deal with this and I wanted to create something that included mentoring and education,” Perez said. “I quickly realized that housing had to be a component.”
In 2005, Inspire Life Skills training opened its first house in Riverside for emancipated foster youth. Housing has since grown to 5 locations to meet the need of the region. Youths provided with housing assistance receive life skills training as well as education and employment support. Participants live independently, pay a nominal rent, attend college and work part-time. They also receive counseling, healthcare access and mentoring. The average stay of participants is two years.
Program participants must be emancipating out of foster care or choosing to stay in care under AB12, be homeless youth without family support, enter the program before they are 22 years old and have a high school diploma or GED.
“Our program gives them stable housing to get out of “fight or flight” mode and start thinking about their goals whether that is a two-year degree or a certificate,” Perez said. “Our goal is for them to be able to support themselves.”
Students who receive this level of support are poised to achieve their goals, according to Perez. One student, Ashley was attending Norco Community College while struggling with homelessness. Inspire Life Skills Training offered her a place in their Corona house, where she found support for 2.5 years. Ultimately, Ashley got a scholarship to attend University California at Berkeley. As well as being a strong academic, Ashley also worked hard on personal growth and character development, which is equally important, Perez said.
Recently, Inspire Life Skills Training received a Women’s Giving Fund grant through the Inland Empire Community Foundation. The organization depends on support from the community to provide additional services to its participants. Currently, the organization is seeking support to take youths in its program to its first weekend retreat since the COVID-19 pandemic.
The organization is also always seeking mentors to offer additional support to program participants. It is an approximately six-hour-a-month commitment and can be very rewarding. Many of the mentors feel they learn more from their mentees than they teach, Perez said.
Inspire Life Skills Training is also in need of people willing to donate their services. This includes mechanics. The program offers participants a savings match program to help them buy their first car, which often needs work. Anyone who could provide support through in-kind services is welcome to inquire about how they can help including dentistry, printing, or any other service that could help young people working toward independence.
“These kids didn’t do anything wrong,” Perez said. “It was their parents’ choices that put them in this position. They deserve the opportunity just like any youth to build opportunities and have safe housing.”
This article originally appeared in the Press Enterprise, December 2022.
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