The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Why It’s Important to Prepare Now
Ja'Nelle Earle

When I see TV commercials where a mother has her 3-year-old help sort the laundry, or a father lets his 5-year-old help sweep and mop the floors, I feel angry and sad. Commercials like those remind me of the tiny things parents do to start preparing their children for the real world. They’re the things I missed out on growing up in the system. Too often I was babied and I didn’t learn how to take care of myself.

Staff at my residential treatment center in San Diego said, “Put your laundry outside your door so it can be washed.” In the morning, my laundry would be folded inside my basket, just outside my door.

At the time, I was glad. I didn’t like folding clothes. But I never learned to wash my own clothes, so when I left the foster care system, I ruined a lot of clothes by washing them wrong. Like a lot of skills I needed to live independently, I never learned to do it myself.

Too Sheltered by the System

At one group home, I did have to attend an independent living skills program. But once I left that group home to live with my grandmother, it was my choice whether to attend independent living classes or not. No one explained to me that if I didn’t learn independent living skills, I would be in trouble when I left the system. Having to sit in a room full of strangers made me nervous, so I just stopped going.

Learning from Mistakes

Now, as a young adult who must be independent at a very early age, I’m trying to catch up. I legally emancipated from the foster care system three years ago. I was not quite finished with high school and had little work experience, which means I couldn’t have gotten a well paying job if I wanted to.

I don’t know how I would have found or paid for an apartment to live in. And if I had lived on my own, I’m not sure how I would have dealt with the loneliness of having only myself to count on, or my sometimes overwhelming feelings of anger. Luckily, my grandmother has let me and my son continue living with her. Even so, I still struggle.

image by Sophia Alexopoulous, image by Sophia Alexopoulos

When I go grocery shopping, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought the name brand item when the generic (no name) brand tastes and looks just the same. I’ve even lost money not using coupons and not making a shopping list.

I recently purchased a car from my grandmother, and it’s been hard paying all the bills for it. Because I never learned about interest rates, when I needed financial assistance I took out a loan without realizing I would have to pay more than I borrowed by the end.

A Support Network Helps

Still, I’ve done better than most of my friends from the foster care system. Some of my peers have tried living with family again, only to be kicked out. Some have become homeless and incarcerated. Many have ended up tied to another system. One girl I know lost her own child to foster care.

Of course, youth leaving care at 18, or even 21, can never be fully prepared to make it on their own without some problems. But the system needs to make sure we have the skills to hold down a job and pay our bills. And youth need to understand that part of being independent is surrounding yourself with a supportive web of people who can help you when you’re in trouble.

We youth need to be active about getting all the skills and support we can while we’re in care.

Life Skills Start at Home

I try to teach my son life skills even though he’s only 3. My son and I clean together, cook together, go shopping together, and I’m even teaching him a little about money. I think it’s important to do that with him—learning independent living skills needs to begin at home, wherever that may be.

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