Former foster youths find community on campus during the holiday season

Trojan Guardian Scholars and nearby organizations act as a home away from home for the holidays.

With the holidays fast approaching, many people are booking flights to visit their families. But some students don’t have anywhere to go.

Seven percent of children in Los Angeles County are in foster care, which means over 30,000 children across California won’t be with their families this holiday season. Additionally, only half of foster youth graduate from high school and only 4% graduate from college. This means foster and former foster youth are in need of a sense of home while they are at college.

At USC, there are several organizations on or around campus that provide support and community for former foster youth.

The Dornsife College of Letters and Science houses the Trojan Guardian Scholars, a program started in 2013 by a former foster youth student to help current and former foster youth who enroll at USC to connect with one another.

“TGS is intended to support former foster youth and financially independent youth,” Guzman said.

While the total number of former foster youth at the university is not disclosed for students’ safety, program coordinator Flavio Magana Guzman said the Trojan Guardian Scholars program serves about 40 undergraduate and 18 graduate students.

The program connects youth with resources like book vouchers, emergency financial assistance and connections to outside organizations for any needs the program cannot fulfill.

USC graduate student Manuella Yushuvayeva said the holidays are a “lonely” time since she’s an out-of-state student.

“I have always been an out-of-state student my college years, so trying to be in my home state of New York to be with my extended family is tough,” Yushuvayeva said.

The Trojan Guardian Scholars work closely with community partner Echoes of Hope, a nonprofit created to help former foster youth that has recently expanded to support low income, homeless, undocumented and former trafficked students and families.

This year, program director Nicole Knosp said they have seen an increased need for housing and food support. The program now offers students help with paying rent and grocery gift cards to alleviate food insecurity.

For Demontea Thompson, a USC alum, an Echos of Hope Leader of Tomorrow, and a TGS alum, Christmas is the hardest holiday. “My great uncle’s, who was my legal guardian, birthday is the day after Christmas," Thompson said.

He said his late uncle sacrificed his retirement to raise Thompson and his twin brother and he uses this time to spend it with his brother and other family members to remember his uncle.

Just a twenty-minute walk from the center of campus, Stepping Forward L.A. offers a home for former foster youth. This organization works with 350 current and former foster youth ages 14-24 and partners with the group home Vista Del Mar to prepare youth transitioning out of the system.

“When youth age out of the system, they stop living in the bubble of their group home,” said Beth Ryan, executive director of Stepping Forward. “Their social workers, staff, and clinicians. All those people leave at the same time.”

On the first Saturday of every month, SFLA hosts First Saturday, an event where current foster youth meet former foster youth and see their achievements after transitioning.

While these programs help youth year-round, they all provide extra support during the holidays.

“For youth, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the hardest because it’s family-oriented,” said Ryan. “We want to let them know they have a family,” Ryan said, “and to feel connected and comfortable to their communities.”

Stepping Forward hosts two celebrations for the season a Thanksgiving brunch and a Holiday Party. They also put together food boxes with a whole turkey, stuffing, veggies and hot chocolate to make sure youth can feed themselves during the holidays.

Ryan wants to create an environment of connection and support for all youth that might not have anywhere to go.

“We want to allow them to be kids for a moment,” Ryan said, “We want them to come and eat as much as they can and center it around gratitude.”

One of the challenges that these organizations face is raising funds for their youth.

After the Tax Cuts Job Act of 2017 reformed itemized and standardized deductions, charities like Echoes of Hope saw a reduction in funding from individual donors.

“The new tax law doesn’t create a huge incentive for [individual] donors to donate,” Knosp said.

Now, Echoes of Hope, along with Stepping Forward L.A. and TGS, rely on individual donations and grants to make up the gap.

Regardless of the adversities that these organizations face they still want to keep a smile on all their youths’ faces year after year.

All three programs strive to make former foster youth feel supported during the holiday season. As the connecting program to outside organizations, TGS wants to continue to support students all year round.

“We are here to help them out. While we might not be the office that can fix all their problems we are here to listen to them, offer them solutions, and help them connect with other students that are similar to them,” Guzman said.

This story has been updated to reflect a change in the job title of a source. A previous version of this piece stated that Guzman was the program assistant of Trojan Guardian Scholars. He is now the program coordinator.