While most young people have the option of living with their parents as they transition to adult life, foster kids don't. A recent state law, now in its second year, allows youths to extend their foster care benefits until they are 21.
But even with that extra support, they face a tough road to self-sufficiency and taking on the full responsibilities of adulthood, which include finding and keeping a job.
Eighteen-year-old Mauro Zavala Leon was put in foster care when he was 15. But even before that, he was on probation for underage drinking and smoking pot. So when he tried to find a job, employers just weren't interested.
"I mean I've put in applications to Wal-Mart, Target, tons of places," he says. "I have friends who work there and they tried to refer me, but when they find out I have a juvenile record they say, 'Do you have any felonies?' And I tell them no. And I never get a call back. I mean, what can I do?"
And that could very easily be the end of the story. Even without a record, state studies show just over half of all foster youths are unemployed within two to four years of leaving foster care.
But Zavala Leon's group home referred him to a San Jose nonprofit called TeenForce. Founder John Hogan says TeenForce, operating much like a temp agency, has hired more than 230 youths in Santa Clara County since launching three years ago. Nearly two-thirds of those were in foster care.
"The foster care system rightly focuses on housing and education and even health care," says Hogan. "But there's not enough work being done to support employment. And people cannot become self-sustaining adults without learning employability skills and without earning income."
TeenForce functions as a nonprofit staffing agency for more than 50 employers. It provides youths with the coaching and support needed to help them keep a job, and charges employers to handle the taxes and insurance.
"They're employing people anyway," says Hogan. "This is the normal course of their business. So we're not asking them to do anything, really, that they don't already do. And yet, while they're using our services, they are funding our nonprofit because we charge them more on an hourly rate than we pay our youth. That's how the staffing industry works."
Hogan hopes this unique model will soon make TeenForce entirely self-sustaining. Right now it relies partly on donations from groups such as the Silicon Valley Children's Fund. Executive Director Elise Cutini says TeenForce provides foster youths and other teens with the connections and mentoring that most people take for granted.
"A lot of our kids think that the only thing they've been exposed to is the judicial system," Cutini says. "So they're thinking, 'I'm going into criminal justice, I'm going into social work.' However there's a whole world out there they're not being exposed to, and I think these jobs are jobs that would not normally be available to them."
Which brings us back to Mauro Zavala Leon. He started off at TeenForce in a part-time job washing cars. But in January, the agency placed him with a termite control business called Planet Orange, which uses orange oils as an alternative to more toxic pesticides.
"Planet Orange was like looking for new employees and TeenForce said, 'Well, we can send you this guy and like this is our best guy," Zavala Leon says excitedly. "From what they told me, they said that I'm the best guy. So I was pretty happy about that! I was like, 'Thanks, that means a lot,' because I try."
Zavala Leon is in a backyard in Hayward, pumping an injector to tackle a termite-infested home. To get here, he had to pass a state test for a pest-control applicator license. The first three times, he failed. But he says TeenForce coaches and his boss, Scott Mendenhall, refused to give up on him.
"Scott was just like, you know what, you got to pass that test, I believe in you. You can do it," Zavala Leon says. "And, it's true. I basically just needed to go with my instinct. And a lot of the three times I failed was because I didn't really trust my judgment."
Mendenhall says Zavala Leon is a big asset to the company.
"You know the big thing is that we've now brought him on to be part of our team," says Mendenhall. "And I expect him to be with us for a very long time and to continue to grow as Planet Orange grows."
Zavala Leon is now making $15 an hour. He's still living in a group home, but the extra income has allowed him to buy his own food, clothing and a computer. Now he's saving up for a car.
Planet Orange's Mendenhall says he plans to take on more TeenForce workers in the future.