Self-reliance, stability, mentorship, independent living, and success.
These are all words you’ll find repeated throughout the website of Sacramento’s newest nonprofit, Aging UP. With a focus on teens ages 13-17 who have experience in the foster care system, Aging UP’s mission is to use mentorship, recreation, and life skills education to empower foster care youth to transition into adulthood successfully and independently.
The challenges foster care youth face are born mostly out of what they lack. Stability, resources, relationships, consistency, a sense of belonging, the presence of a caring adult, and even human connectedness are frequently in short supply. As a result, foster youth statistically have 50/50 chance of having a successful adulthood. Many end up up homeless, unemployed, incarcerated, and/or facing mental and physical health issues.
“The unfortunate reality for youth with experience in foster care [is that] they’re really just surviving,” said co-founder April Johnson. “They might have a job, they might have place to live, but it’s really just bare bones survival—emotionally and tangibly. Our goal is to help them thrive, not just survive."
The nonprofit is named Aging UP because their goal is for youth to see exiting the foster system not as something they’re only “aging out” of, but as opportunity to grow/age “up” into happy, healthy, successful adults. Upon seeing the gap of resources that 13-17 year foster youth have and researching the ways in which they could help, co-founders Johnson and Kecia Sakazaki discovered that sometimes foster youth’s greatest need is simply the stabilizing force of an adult who cares about them.
Mentorship, therefore, is what drives the program.
“Research shows that the presence of a caring, consistent adult can help heal trauma; that relationships can help heal trauma,” said Sakazaki after indicating that foster youth struggle with trust, insecurity, and even PTSD. “They just need something that can help them experience life as a regular kid. When they are with their mentor they can just be a kid. They don’t have to feel the pressures. They have a person who comes back. They develop a relationship.”
Since providing stability is at the heart of mentorship, mentors are asked to commit to one year of a minimum of 8 hours spent with a foster youth spread over at least two visits per month. The purpose of meeting up with youth is primarily connectedness, sharing interests, and being a listening ear, a resource of information if needed, and, most importantly, a positive and consistent presence.
Important to the mentor-youth relationship is recreation and life skills workshop opportunities for mentors and youth to experience together.
Recreation can be any activity from kayaking to rock climbing to just sitting in a park and having a conversation.
“Recreation is a tool to increase bonding,” said Johnson. “It might be their first time kayaking–for the youth or for the mentor. So they’re sharing this experience and [saying to each other] I’m a little nervous or scared or I’m really excited. It’s going help expand that world view and help the youth feel like they’re not alone.”
Aging UP-organized Group MeetUPs provide a place for youth and mentors to participate in group activities with other foster youth and their mentors. MeetUPs give teens a stigma-free place to positively interact with other adults and foster youth teens going through a similar experience.
Since multiple home and/or academic placements make it hard for foster youth to acquire basic life skills such as cooking, shopping, laundry, budgeting, and hygiene, Aging UP also provides UPshops, engaging independent living skills workshops covering topics such as resume writing, college and career planning, healthy living, financial literacy, and more.
The goal of these recreation and education opportunities is for foster teens to gain confidence, learn things they may have never otherwise learned, to have someone to share it with, and to discover who they are and what they want to do.
In short, the goal of Aging UP is to help foster youth find self-reliance, stability, the healing benefits of a mentor, independent living skills, and success.
“[It’s important to note that] success is how they define success,” said Sakazaki. “I think if they’re able to be self-sufficient, that’s success. Some might aspire to go to college and we want to inspire them to do that. Some might have other career paths or plans. Whatever it is, we’re here to help figure out they’re definition of success.”
For Johnson, Aging UP is much about imparting friendship and giving visibility to someone who needs it.
“Every kid deserves that,” said Johnson. “They should all feel safe and have someone who sees them, who gives them visibility, and who provides that friendship, that consistency and stability.”
It’s a friendship that Aging UP hopes is empowering to teens.
So involved in to that end is Aging UP that it even got the attention of Lady Gaga, who joined forces with Born This Way Foundation on her latest tour to help empower youth to build a kinder and braver world. Aging UP was Lady Gaga’s featured nonprofit when she performed in Sacramento in August.
“It was a huge honor,” said Johnson. “It felt like a privilege because now we have access to her fans, so they can either get inspired to mentor or to donate, or to even just learn more or follow us.”
Johnson and Sakazaki’s hope is, of course, that more than just Lady Gaga’s fans are inspired to get behind Aging UP. The invitation to volunteer as a mentor is open anyone who has a heart for teens who either currently are or at any time were a part of the foster youth system.