Turn 18 in foster care and you’re on your own.
About 450 teens leave Arizona’s foster care system each year. Some will leave without basic life skills and have poor reading and writing skills because they move around so much.
For them the future is bleak — they’re more likely to be poor, homeless, physically or mentally ill, addicted to drugs and involved in abusive relationships.
"These kids hit the streets or jail or the homeless shelters," says Diane Daily. "They can’t have a bad month and run back to their families."
Daily is executive director of Foster Angels of Arizona Serving Together Inc., a Mesabased nonprofit organization working to change all that.
The group was founded in 2000 by foster parents Ron and Kim Burleson. Initially the goal was to provide Maricopa County foster children with all the things people take for granted — a birthday gift, a new bicycle, dance lessons. But Daily, who joined the organization full-time as executive director in 2004, has expanded the mission.
Now the group is working to fill in the gaps left by the overburdened state system by providing one-on-one services such as tutoring, mentoring, peer mentoring and a transitional living program. Daily and her staff work with 400 children annually. Most of them come from group homes.
These services aren’t cheap. The state system provides $300 per student for clothes, plus $40 for a birthday or holiday gift. Mentoring and tutoring costs about $1,500 per child, says Daily. Even intact, middle-class families have a hard time paying a private tutor.
The group’s tutoring program matches foster children with trained volunteers who will tutor and mentor them for a year.
"If a child can’t read, then what kind of a future do we have?" says Daily.
Helping kids make the transition to life outside of foster care is another goal. The FAAST Tracks program provides students with one-onone attention, GED tutoring, and career mentoring. If a teen needs help with a résumé, Daily and her staff are there to help. Hopefully, the teens will develop a life plan with the group’s help.
"The state has transitional services," says Daily. "But it’s an overloaded system. There’s so much need and only so many state dollars allotted to do it. It’s really up to the community to step forward and fill in the gap."
Although the state does go over the basics for those set to leave the system, "they don’t get this hands-on, real intensive care," says Faith Falkner, a court-appointed special advocate who has worked with Daily’s group. "Many of these kids have been in the system so long they don’t realize they need money to buy groceries."
Daily hopes to build a facility for youth transitioning out of foster care. The plan is to take over an old building and refurbish it with the help of the community.
In addition to providing tutoring and mentoring, the group gives foster children important cultural experiences that broaden their world view.
Recently the group partnered with Arizona State University and took a group of children to see a Broadway show at Gammage Auditorium. The children dressed for the theater, had dinner afterwards and met members of the cast.
"That’s something children will treasure in their hearts for years to come,"
says Elizabeth Kottoor, the owner of Sunshine Residential Homes. "We would have never been able to get that opportunity for our children."
Other cultural opportunities have had therapeutic value, says Daily.
The group recently hosted a poetry and photography workshop with Arizona Highways magazine. Half the children wrote poems and the other half took photos to illustrate the poetry.
"It’s an amazing opportunity for children so filled with resentment to be able to walk away with this experience," says Daily. "They have so much trauma, so much frustration and confusion. This is an outlet for them to constructively explore their feelings."