Youth aging out of foster care recently had a chance to learn more about navigating real-life experiences during an annual Independence Day Youth Conference hosted by BCFS Health and Human Services' Tyler Transition Center.

As part of the conference, which, according to a news release, is designed to "to equip them (the youth) with the knowledge, tools and inspiration to transition successfully to independence and adulthood," individuals were divided into groups, with each group representing a different life scenario, such as incarceration, homelessness, finding an apartment and going to college. With a survival guide in hand, they then had to pretend they were in that particular scenario.

Program director Carla Sash called it, "Playing the game of life."

Ms. Sash said there are those undecided youth who, when they get ready to leave foster care, aren't sure what they want to do because they haven't been exposed to information, or are fearful of being out on their own. Then, she said, there are other youth who indicate that they kind of know what they want, but have to experience what they say they want.

So they must experience going to college, filling out a college admissions application, navigating the financial aid process, paying dorm fees and ensuring that they have enough food in the dorm since they won't have the support that most have, Ms. Sash said.

She said there also are those youth that say they want to work and live on their own, and they must experience apartment hunting and paying their bills.

"So we try to expose them to the reality," Ms. Sash said.

She said most of the youth are 17, so the goal is to open their eyes to what they can expect when they get ready to leave foster care, depending on what decision they make, or they are undecided, what could happen.

The conference, which took place Wednesday at the Rose Garden Center and drew about 80 youth, ages 16 to 21, also was scheduled to include breakout sessions. The conference theme was "Setting Sail to Independence."

Yvonne Paris, director of communications for BCFS Health and Human Services, said attendees learned about things, such as getting into college, applying for an internship, how to get good credit, housing and how to access the Preparation for Adult Living program to receive benefits.

"These youth, when they age out of foster care, they don't have the same traditional support system that a lot of youth have. They don't necessarily have a mom and dad to ask, ‘How do I get in my first apartment?' or ‘How do I get my first car?'" Ms. Paris said.

"Those can seem like insurmountable obstacles, so the transition center serves as a support system and helps connect them to resources and information to help them."

Once youth age out of foster care, they can still return to the transition center for help, Ms. Paris said.

She said they also contact the center with good news — for example, when they have a good job, moved to a new place or have achieved their dreams.

"This is just another event to get them set up, get them ready to go," Ms. Paris said.

One of the youth at the conference was 18-year-old India Williams, who lives in a group home in Marshall.

Ms. Williams recently graduated from Marshall High School and plans to attend Texas State Technical College. After that, she said she might attend Texas A&M University-Commerce. Her ultimate goal is to become a social worker.

Another attendee, Sebastian Lewis, 18, lives in a group home in Tyler.

He said he wanted to learn how to manage his money and would like to do Culinary Arts in the future.



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