Pushing Foster Children Off the Plank 

Kayla Gordon was emancipated from foster care during California's budget crisis. It wasn't easy.

Page 5 of 6

Still, she loved having her own space. She could burn candles and leave her clothes on the floor when she felt like it. "There's nothing like living on your own, having your own space, having your own freedom," she said.

At the same time, having her own place also meant establishing boundaries, and Kayla had a hard time saying no. "Everybody wants to come over and kick it and spend the night," she said.

A chance encounter with a mutual acquaintance on BART last summer brought Jennings back into Kayla's life. Jennings, 57, has been a college counselor for twelve years and a juvenile hall chaplain for 25 years. "My vocation is helping young people succeed," she said.

Jennings wanted to see Kayla succeed, and was in a position to help.

One October evening, Don Graves was working late at his office. He was focused on a new program designed to serve as an alternative to transitional housing without the reliance on public funding. James Wogan, who coordinates services for homeless and foster youth in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, had devised an ambitious plan to ask community members to open up their homes to vulnerable teens, and Graves liked the sound of his idea. Soon, the two men and their colleagues were working out the details.

As Graves discussed the program on that evening, Kayla, wearing a black sweater, black boots, and red jeans, leaned in his doorway. "That's a good program," she said, picking up on the conversation. "Do you have a lot of volunteers?"

She had come to see Graves because her housing situation had changed. Terri Jennings had invited her to live in her home, rent-free, and Kayla had accepted.

She had considered it for more than a month. Taking Jennings' offer would mean giving up living on her own. But it would also mean saving money and living with people who cared. In early October, she had moved in with Jennings.

Kayla had found a situation similar to what Graves hoped to set up for others, but she wasn't entirely comfortable accepting help. She wondered why anyone would let her move in without paying rent, and she was relieved when she realized there already was a program that would let her stay there and compensate Jennings. The transitional housing provider First Place for Youth provides funding for young adults who want the option of living with a mentor. Jennings said it wasn't necessary, but supported Kayla's decision to apply.

That's how Kayla found herself in an office in Concord last fall, back in the foster care bureaucracy of her own volition, this time being interviewed by a First Place employee about the circumstances of her rootless childhood. The interview didn't go well. Kayla was agitated going in, and the questions seemed repetitive. It covered her history in foster care, as well as her education, drug use, and criminal background. There were questions about whether the people in her life supported her, and she had to sign waivers giving First Place permission to find out more. Kayla couldn't wait for it to be over. When it was, she left the office and lit a cigarette.

The answers she gave were the kind of information that was in her foster care file. And when she was growing up, Kayla said the people who read it didn't want her.

"I'm tired of being passed around like a file," she said. "What is written on paper is not who you are."

On a gray spring evening, Kayla walked into a mint green locker room to prepare for her weekly water aerobics class. She and Jennings both signed up to spend more time with one another.

Kayla got there first and changed into her black one-piece bathing suit with red and white polka dots, but she couldn't find her cap. Jennings had bought her two, but Kayla had lost both of them. She put on Jennings' instead.

When Jennings came from her office on the other side of campus, she wanted to know why Kayla had taken her swim cap and what she had done with her own. Kayla said she didn't know, but she'd just permed her hair, and she wasn't going in the water without a cap.

The two women glared at each other. Jennings was exasperated; Kayla was stubborn. As Kayla readied herself to leave, Jennings gave in. She jammed a baseball hat on her own head to keep her salt-and-pepper hair out of the water.

"And 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go!" The instructor stood on the pool's blue-tiled edge and mimed the movements she wanted the class to repeat. Kayla and Jennings followed along — criss-crossed legs, cross-country arms, and thunder kicks. The heavy clouds meant rain was on its way, and the wind was picking up, blowing the green and white pennants that hung over the pool.

They stayed close in the water, but not right beside each other. When Kayla kept her distance, Jennings let her.

At Jennings' house, there's a framed portrait of Kayla with Jennings and her husband on the mantle. The Jennings are seated, and Kayla stands behind them, her hands resting on their shoulders. Everyone is dressed up, smiling. Their home is full of framed photos of memories and achievements. Now Kayla is part of that. Jennings said she thinks of her like a daughter.


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