Wearing an employee badge is the best part of Carolyn Swain’s job.
Having been in the foster care system since age 12, she has seen the same badge worn by social workers or county administrators for years. Every time she visited the county administration building, people with badges were able to bypass the suspicion and intrusion of the metal detectors and immediately access the offices. The employee badge wasn’t simply an identification but, to Swain, an ornament of professionalism and status.
Now that she works for Alameda County in Northern California, she gets to walk in the building every day, wearing her badge.
“I’ve always wanted to wear the badge. It’s the respect,” said Swain.
Swain is one of 18 former foster youth working as part of the New Beginnings Summer Fellowship of Alameda County. The fellowship gives youth the opportunity to gain work experience and develop their professional skills, in preparation for life outside of the system.
This year only former foster youth ages 18-24 who were referred by an organization were eligible for the fellowship. Each fellow is paid $12 an hour by the department they assist, and most work an average of four hours a day.
Swain knows the fellowship well, as she has worked on both tracks of the program. In 2010, while living in housing for former foster youth with children, Swain was looking for work as a certified nursing assistant. Someone working with the housing program told her about the Fresh Start Cafés, which allows youth to work part-time at three café locations across the county for 16 weeks. Aramark Food Services provides the food for the cafés with drinks provided by Peet’s Coffee. At the end of the program, the youth receive a food handling certificate and a letter of recommendation from the county.
This summer, Swain is taking a break from nursing to work in the County Assessor’s Office as part of the other track of the fellowship. County departments pay to have fellows work with them for eight weeks during the summer.
While most youth either participate in one track or the other, Swain says she has benefitted from having such diverse working experiences.
“Meeting with the [other] fellows every Tuesday has helped me figure out what I want to do,” said Swain. She has decided that because she enjoys the healing of the nursing profession, and the service of working for the community like the county officials, she wants to become a physical therapist.
Every Tuesday the fellows working in the county offices participate in development workshops, which focus on educational pathways, future planning, and enrichment activities such as volunteering. This week the fellows engaged in speed networking, which created the opportunity for each youth to have professional conversations with at least seven officials throughout the county.
“For former foster youth, there isn’t the same exposure,” said Lauren Baranco, New Beginnings coordinator. “You don’t have a family friend who works somewhere with an internship opportunity for you. So we want to be able to help open those doors.”
Baranco, who has been working with the program since its conception in 2010, says the professional tools youth receive during the fellowship can develop the intangible parts of a young person.
“Something like a badge or a business card turns an intern into a professional. And into a leader,” said Baranco.
The fellowship is a partnership with Beyond Emancipation (BE), an organization in Oakland which provides life support for youth transitioning from the foster care system. BE recruited all of this year’s fellows and provided housing and employment counseling.
Some days, fellows move out of the office and into the offices of other influential professionals in the county. Judge Trina Thompson, Alameda County Juvenile Judge, was visited by the fellows in July.
“It was refreshing to see a lot of young people who are often counted out or labeled because they are in the foster care system,” said Judge Thompson, who grew up having foster parents herself. She said she told the youth never to allow anyone to talk down to them or make them feel unworthy of the high expectations she has for them.
“I really applaud Alameda County for being forward-thinking and providing opportunities for kids who are their kids, since they are the parents,” said Thompson.
In only its second year of existence, the fellowship program hasn’t yet tracked how may youth have received permanent employment after working with the county. But Baranco recalls two fellows having received job offers from the county and many others being encouraged by their supervisors to apply for open positions. Tracking the fellows’ professional development post fellowship is part of the review process she and the fellowship team will do after the fellowship ends next week.
“We’re reflecting on this year’s model and seeing how we can improve. Will it still be during the summer? Does it need to be expanded? We’re determining how we can be most effective,” said Baranco.
For Swain, the fellowship has not only affected her but also her five-year-old son, Jamari.
“I think it will have great impact on him. He’s already at that stage where he’s trying everything and I tell him you can do it,” says Swain.
“He’ll never give up because I never gave up on my education.”