RICHMOND -- DeJean Middle School's corridors and classrooms were abuzz Saturday not with algebra and English, but with giving young people a helping hand into adulthood.
A second annual Foster Care Youth Conference, organized by Contra Costa County agencies and the Richmond Police's Youth Services Division, connected current and recently emancipated foster children with vital resources to help them succeed in life.
There might be no tougher time for foster children than those few years before and after they turn 18; after years of being in "the system," they're suddenly emancipated, and many often don't know where to turn for help.
"They're worried about jobs, housing ... life skills, things that we kind of take for granted," said Kathy Marsh, division manager at Contra Costa County Children and Family Services. "These are real concerns for them."
So Saturday's conference, attended by more than 100 participants from all over the East Bay, offered workshops on the necessities -- job skills, money management, parenting, housing and transportation resources, and so on -- as well as the nuances, like a "My Boo: Dating and Relationships" session, a beauty salon and a musical beatmaking clinic. Marsh said the topics were chosen using feedback from last year's event.
Malcolm Penton, 31, a former foster child who found help through the county's Independent Living Skills Program, came back to volunteer and share his experiences. A UC Berkeley graduate and former Coro Foundation civic leadership fellow who now works for Comcast, he said efforts like Saturday's can be life-changing for foster children entering adulthood.
"Employment services are huge," said Penton, of Antioch, as is help with housing. "It's hard to ask people to go to school and get a job if they have nowhere to stay."
Demeca Leroy, of Pittsburg, sat in on a parenting class.
"My experience in foster care was kind of hard -- I was in and out of placements," said Leroy, 23, but events like Saturday's conference have made her transition easier. "When other people say 'you can't do it' ... they've been there for me."
Julia Gayfield, 21, of Richmond, who was in foster care as a young child and then again in her late teens, sat in on a job skills workshop. Events like this "really do help me a lot," she said.
Marsh said sometimes it's important simply for current and former foster youth to know "that these are people who care about me and really want to help me."
Among the many contributors and presenters at Saturday's event were Bay Area Peace Keepers, Contra Costa College, Marinello Schools of Beauty, Mindful Life Yoga and Richmond's YouthWORKS program.
Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus said his department's youth division, led by Detective Delon Jackson, was pleased to find so many partners willing to help with the conference.
"We invest a lot in caring about these youth and families," Magnus said. "You can head off so many other problems by being proactive."
Counties constantly seek more families willing to accept foster children. For more information, call 510-670-6035 in Alameda County or 925-602-6930 in Contra Costa County.