San Francisco Chronicle

IN FIVE MONTHS, eight Napa teens have succeeded in doing what California's Department of Social Services has failed to do -- bring together various agencies dealing with foster care to create a cohesive, streamlined system of support efforts.

With the help of a coalition of government and nonprofit agencies, the youth -- ranging in age from 15 to 21, opened the doors to VOICES (Voice Our Independent Choices for Emancipation Support), the first known youth-led center for emancipating youth.

For many foster teens, services such as housing, education and health care are cut off the day they turn 18 -- when they emancipate, or "age out," of foster care. While there is a state mandate to provide services to transitioning youth, programs vary greatly from county to county, leaving many teens to fend for themselves.

"Right now, since I'll be emancipating soon, I'd be looking for services like financial aid and housing on my own," said co-founder Nicole Felton, 17. "So it really struck a chord with me. This is a major project because I know it's a struggle to leave the system and have to find these things."

Felton, along with Matthew Knox, 17, Katie Findley, 16, Mitch Findley, 18, Richard Kyle Petrini, 18, Forrest Miller, 17, and Marissa Hawkins, 21 -- all from Napa County -- were brought into the project after county agency directors formed a committee to address the needs of emancipating youth.

After raising money through the Gasser Foundation and the Napa Valley Wine Auction, the committee turned to On the Move, a nonprofit agency that brings together youth and community leaders.

"Up until that point, the committee was going to create a service center, but there were no youth driving the process," said Leslie Medine, executive director of On the Move. "We proposed that if they really wanted this to be innovative, what about putting the youth at the center of this and have them co-staff and co-lead the organization?"

The youth team, who were all strangers to each other except for siblings Katie and Mitch Findley, met regularly between school and work schedules. They went to foster care group homes throughout the county and held focus groups. They determined which services were most needed and approached agencies that could deliver them.

They were successful in convincing directors of each agency to "loan out" an employee to the center on a part-time basis.

"For example, the director of the County Welfare Department has agreed to let one of their staff work at the center as opposed to their office,'' said Medine. "Now that person will be at VOICES helping youth with independent living skills.''

Transitioning teens can go to the center to find services related to health, job training, education, housing, transportation, social development and family support.

"Lots of foster youth have lost hope in finding things," said co-founder Marissa Hawkins. "We just wanted teens to feel supported and know that people just like them are here to help."

At last week's grand opening, the youth founders took turns giving small group tours and explaining how the center works. It was clear that the youth were in charge.

"If you're not able to voice your opinions and your needs, you have no tools," said co-founder Richard Kyle Petrini. "That's how we came up with the name, because many times foster youth feel they have no voice at all."

Through building agency collaborations and community support, these youth have created a center that will help foster teens deal with one of the most confusing and frightening times of their lives.

While each of them cited different reasons for joining the project -- fear of emancipation, a desire to help others -- they all had one in common: to set an example for their peers.
Not only have they done that, they have set an example for the state of California.