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Living in Limbo 

Sonoma County ranks high for 'disconnected youth'—those out of school and unable to find a job—and reversing the trend isn't easy

Page 3 of 3

Jeramy Lowther ran away from home when he was 16 after his family was evicted from their home. He ended up in foster care, and then homeless, before going to live at the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. Now 18, Lowther is two days into his first semester at Santa Rosa Junior College and lives at the Tamayo Village, a transitional housing unit provided by SAY, where he pays $245 a month in rent to share a room. He gets little financial support from his parents; Lowther is learning to navigate the system on his own. This month he applied for jobs at Jack in the Box and Juice Shack, sans results. But he's not giving up.

"Without SAY or VOICES, I would have never graduated high school," says Lowther. "I would have gotten myself into a much worse position. I don't know where I would be now. I don't know if I'd have a place to live."

click to enlarge DECOMPRESSION A board game inside VOICES gets lively. - LEILANI CLARK
  • Leilani Clark
  • DECOMPRESSION A board game inside VOICES gets lively.

The importance of community resources and connections is finally being embraced by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. On Jan. 8, the board listened to two hours of presentations on efforts to ramp up educational and workforce opportunities for youth.

The board voted to give $375,000 to education and workforce development programs, including $100,000 to Scholarship Sonoma County, which provides scholarships to college-bound students in need. It also adopted the community pledge for Cradle to Career.

"We can continue to invest later in additional social services, or we invest now in our future workforce," Supervisor Mike McGuire told the audience. "We must be focused on educational achievement, particularly as we see this county changing in demographics."

Those demographics have much to do with age. A county study recently found that 43 percent of high school graduates continue with post-secondary education and less than 25 percent of low-income youth graduate with degrees. At the same time, the retirement age population in the county (ages 60 to 69) increased 76 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Meanwhile, Ortega continues to look for work and sort out her future. She hasn't received much, if any, help from the family. Freshly sober, her mom struggled with addiction and abuse for years; her father is unemployed and comes around to visit only once in a while. For now, Ortega jumps among the houses of family and friends, never staying in one place for long.

"I get stressed out, which is bad for me because my health isn't too good," she says. But walking helps, as does writing and drawing. She wants to get through this time intact, hopefully in school and with a job at the end of it. She's leaning on SAY for now, and guidance from a 25-year-old mentor.

"For me, being out of high school, being 18 and not having a job or too much support, is pretty hectic," Ortega says. "I want so much in life that I can't really get right now."

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