Foster Youth Need Mentors and Real-world Experience

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Many people don't like teenage fosters because by the time they are a certain age, they become "unruly" and "know it alls." In a way, I would agree.

I was 17 when I entered into foster care along with my younger sister, who was 13. We were "old" and different than the other younger and/ or teenaged girls in the foster home we were transferred into, so by this time we had instilled in us a sense of who we were. We were independent. I was the second oldest of five, the "survivor" but also the one who didn't eat. I brought food home from school and work to feed my younger siblings, and though I had a job, I didn't know what a budget was. I called it saving money while others called it being stingy. On top of that, I didn't know how to cook, let alone shop for groceries.

I realized that I knew nothing at a time where I needed to know something fast. I had one more year until college, and I was scared. When I was put into foster care, I'd lost my independence. For the first time there was someone watching over me and actually caring about where I was and how I was feeling. I honestly didn't like it and was more concerned about everyone else: my sister and younger twin brothers. (My older sister was too old to be in the system.) As time was still ticking for me to become self-sustainable and venture into the real world, I found a mentor in a former track coach.

She taught me to shop by walking each aisle of the grocery store, only buying an item on sale. She said no to anything that was considered junk food, including sugary cereals. I hated it until I realized that each time we'd leave with three times as much food for the same amount I'd spend when I shopped for myself. When shopping for clothes, it was the same thing — except we only shopped clearance and sales. She told me to try on clothes to make sure I would wear it to save the hassle of wasting money just because something looked good on a hanger. I was surprised to see how many nice clothes I left with at places like Kohl's and Macy's.

I've since attended sessions for foster children about budgeting and being successful. I observed that most foster children in my sessions felt forced to attend by the system. It felt like a class where everyone knew the textbook answer but couldn't have come to that conclusion on their own. In a way I was disappointed for them and thought that each one of them should have a hands-on experience like I had.

These programs shouldn't be like school. These programs were put in place to teach about life and how to make ours easier. Life teaches through experience, and this is how it should be taught.

There are many wonderful programs providing resources for foster children now, but what happens when these resources run out? What happens when we age out of care? Every statistic is against us. We are more likely to be homeless, abuse drugs, be unemployed and rely on government services than the average American. In a recent study, one in four former foster children were said to be homeless within the first four years of aging out of care. These programs indeed take care of us, but what will teach us to take care of ourselves?

There should be more programs in place to teach foster youth to be more self-sufficient and provide real-world experiences on how to do so. We need programs to show us how to do laundry, cook, shop and budget. Now more than ever, we need time and patience from leaders; we need mentors.

Melody McLaurin, 19, is a student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and a circulation marketing associate for Youth Today.