Tim Mayworm opens the door to the historic craftsman in Orange Heights with a small, welcoming flourish, just as he has done thousands of times since 1983, when he founded Journey House as a group home for probation youth, and then later repurposing it for former foster youth
Built in 1912 by renowned architect David M. Renton, the large olive green abode exudes character and warmth, just like Mayworm himself as he gives the traditional tour, proudly showing off the large dining room and recently renovated kitchen.
“This is where most of our therapy happens,” he notes, smiling as he runs his hand along the counter. “There’s nothing like cooking a hungry boy a meal and saying, ‘well, tell me what’s going on.’”
Journey House is a home to those without, having served 300 former foster youth, children who were wards of the state and then aged out of foster care services as the state requires. The young men and women being cut off from services are mostly between 18-24 years old, but Journey House doesn’t impose age limits or pass judgement on its members. Mayworm is the father figure many never had, and still receives calls from his “original boys,” probation youth he raised in the house on Robles Avenue, who are now well into their late 40s. The house now serves as a day site and office building where the young adults can come to eat, shower or make phone calls.
“We’re not a punitive program here. Are you going to make mistakes at 18? Most definitely!” he said, laughing in the back corner office of the house. “It makes us keep our kids for a long time. We don’t give up on our kids, not ever.”
It was the foundation on which he began offering critical care to the former foster youth, stepping into a vacuum of need left when the state steps away. After a lifetime of abandonment, abuse and inconsistent living situations provided by the state, many were coming into adulthood. They were independent, and no longer required to go to school. But the financial subsidies waned, as did many of their provided living situations. This spelled trouble, Mayworm noted.
“You look at these kids and the abuse that they came from — there are many, many different forms of abuse; many of them really don’t believe they’ll be alive by the time they’re 21,” he said, recounting some of the foster youth’s nightmares. One boy arrived at Journey House with cigarette burns all over his back; others were victims of sexual predation; another was allowed to eat only peanut butter sandwiches.
Statistics show that 70% of all California state prison inmates are former foster youth, and one in four become incarcerated within two years of aging out of foster care. Many also become homeless; some 36% of foster youth in the state become homeless within 18 months of aging out of services.
These are numbers Mayworm strives to change, and has changed, at least at Journey House. Of the 300 young men and women served, only one is currently incarcerated, and only two have died violently. “We had to bury them,” recounted Mayworm, nodding to the portraits of two boys, Charles and Dino, hanging in his office.
Mayworm warmly remembers them: One had declared his intention on attending Notre Dame and was shot and killed later that night; the other, “that knucklehead, the funniest little kid ever” also was shot after picking up his father, a known gang member.
Overall, Mayworm counts his luck. Journey House has found a formula that works — higher education for former foster youth. The program gives guidance and financial support to help pay for it and all the expenses if necessary.
“Our product is kids who graduate from college and become independent, tax-paying citizens. Pasadena’s community has been very supportive of us because they like our product,” he said, noting that across the country, that’s not the case. “There’s a large percentage of former foster youth that just cannot adjust to the adult world. They’re undereducated and they’re underemployed, which is a crisis.”
A newer program through Journey House, called Beyond Foster Care, has also given former foster youth a strong voice in advocacy. Created by the former foster youth, it initially was intended to be a story-telling platform to help individuals share their journeys, and help others understand their challenges in life as a young adult. Most state-given aid to former foster youth cuts off at 21 years of age, with housing subsidies cut off at 24. This leaves them with little time to prepare for life ahead.
Realizing its potential, Beyond Foster Care visited Sacramento 15 times in 2017, pushing to help clarify laws regarding emancipated foster youth. It celebrated its first legislative victory at the end of the year, Assembly Bill 1567. The legislation requires that foster youth automatically be notified of the services they qualify for upon acceptance at state community colleges or a California State University.
Up until then, many foster kids had no idea they qualified for financial aid, or learned of it only after they had already aged out of the benefits, BFC Director Jesse Aguiar said.
“So many of the decisions affecting foster youth are made at the legislative level — and without our input,” said Aguiar, a Journey House success story himself. “I knew that if our reality was going to change, that representation needed to change. Our mission is to change the narratives of former foster youth from stories of tragedy and victimization to one of empowerment.”
BFC has created an entire list of needs to help former foster youth land on their feet. Part of that is actively researching the outcome of those youths in the foster care system, on which there is very little information. When they become emancipated, they get dropped from the system.
“The problem we kept running into was that no one knew what was happening to these kids, there were so many gaps in the system,” Aguiar said.
In response to the limited amount of data, BFC has partnered with the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA to launch a research study that examines the educational, employment and housing needs of former foster youth beyond the age of 21. The report will help BFC define its policy initiative and its legislative efforts going forward.
Yahniie Bridges, also on the BFC staff and a former foster youth, is doing the outreach to foster care programs across the state. So far, it’s been a painstaking venture; Bridges has called 57 counties and gotten only 10 responses.
“They just don’t keep tabs on their youth … it’s like they just fall off the face of the Earth, no one knows what happened to them. That’s why this data is so important,” said Bridges, who with a 7-year-old daughter, also wants to advocate for young moms who were former foster kids. That might include setting up a local, low-cost day care or babysitting initiative to help those young women work or get a higher education.
Statistics show 50% of female foster youth will become pregnant by age 19. Those young moms face even more challenges to get a college degree, she noted.
“It’s the bigger cause that keeps me interested here,” said Bridges, who also appears on speaker panels with law enforcement looking to improve community outreach. “What happens to foster kids isn’t a very popular topic to talk about [in legislation]. I don’t think it was intentional when they were creating these bills, but it’s a result of them never taking into account our experiences and the fact that we didn’t have any parental support.”
BFC will advocate this year for a scholarship fund in 2018 at the state level for former foster youth who want to become social workers.
“Foster youth who want to be social workers should be prioritized, because they’ve been there, they can give back,” Aguiar said. “We want to create deliberate pathways for youth who have lived through the system and now want to help kids who are in that same situation.”
Journey House also is advocating for its youth to get good professional experience in the work force, something that has also proven difficult for foster kids.
“How do they even fill out a work form if they don’t have a permanent address?” Mayworm asked, pointing out that many don’t know how to explain their long list of schools, locations and maybe don’t have emergency contacts. “They have a lot against them from the get-go.”
To address that need, Journey House has opened its own thrift store, located at 453 E. Orange Grove Blvd. The site serves to employ its own members, giving them work experience, and also to serve as a place where the former foster youth can go for new clothing and business-work attire.
Journey House Board President Fred Wong said the nonprofit is filling a great need that would otherwise be a dangerous void left by the foster care system.
“If these kids are not kept housed, kept in school, kept employed at their young age, they will more than likely get into trouble,” he said. “The store is giving kids very hands-on experience and it’s good stuff for their resume. It also really motivates them and gives them self-esteem.”
The Thrift Store appreciates donations. It accepts new and gently used clothing, furniture, antiques and more. For more information on Journey House and its Beyond Foster Care program, as well as the Journey House Thrift Store, visit JourneyHouseYouth.org.