Armed with the grim statistics about foster children aging out of the system, licensed master social worker Sonya Brown gears her life around giving young people in foster care the support they don’t always have.
She has another motivation for her deep concern: her own experience in the Louisiana foster care system.
Her father was an alcoholic; her mother was diagnosed schizophrenic; and, at 6, she was separated from her siblings, spending time in seven foster homes and 10 schools. She ran away frequently; she was expelled three times, and, at 17, she went to jail after running away from a group home.
To see her now, you wouldn’t know she graduated from the school of hard knocks. Today, she has a bachelor and master degree in social work. She worked as a community engagement connector for Boys Town Louisiana. She created and is executive director of Project 18, a resource program for teens aging out of the system. She also advocates locally and nationally on behalf of foster children, and she serves on task forces and addresses the legislature — most recently at the U.S. House of Representatives speaking on justice reform for incarcerated teen girls.
Though she often felt alone and in danger as a child, there were key people along the path that helped her eventually find direction.
“All the work that I do is inspired from my personal experience, and having people who were role models and taught me the value of working hard and helping others,” she says. “My mentors, former social workers, former attorneys, extended family, my foster mother … I have to help people because so many people helped me.”
Brown is being recognized this month with an Angel Award from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation for her program Project 18. The group’s mission is to ensure that current and former foster care youth successfully transition into adulthood by providing a safety net of services, resources and supportive individuals.
“We hope to foster the forever L.O.V.E. (Life Skills, Opportunities, Voice and Empowerment) each youth deserves,” Brown says.
Emergency funds help teens with unexpected transportation, rent and one-time emergency costs. They help push the young adults to complete their education, find employment and secure housing. They teach budgeting, time management and other life skills. Brown is working with other volunteers of Project 18 to raise enough money to build transitional housing for young people who are aging out without a place to live. Most importantly, Project 18 connects foster teens with ongoing emotional support from friends and mentors, creating an informal family network.
Brown’s work is hands-on and intensive — and most often involves helping individuals navigate the hurdles that happen for teenagers on their own.
“Foster kids walk a very tight line,” she says. “For example, if you mess up your grades one semester in college, you might lose financial aid and the possibility of ever finishing. If you get a traffic ticket, you might lose your license because you can’t afford to pay it. Most people have families to fall back on when they mess up. I want to give foster kids the luxury of making a mistake without giving up their future.” project18.org
THE GRIM STATISTICS
• 200 young people age out of the foster care system every year in Louisiana
• On average, for every young person that ages out without support, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social costs over that person’s lifetime
• 1 in 4 former foster youth will experience PTSD (two times the rate of U.S. war veterans) and 1 in 5 will become homeless
• Less than 3 percent of youth aging out of foster care will complete a college education without support