Oakland -- One evening, Paris Mason made about five pounds of chicken, macaroni and cheese, salad and cookies to last for the week. As young newlyweds, she and her husband, Dione Mason, stay busy. At E.C. Reems, a charter school in East Oakland, she is the after-school coordinator and a substitute teacher and he is the P.E. teacher and coaches a youth basketball team.
They ate just a few pieces of chicken and put the leftovers away. But when they returned to the kitchen, no chicken was left over.
"You would have thought a whole football team ran through the house," Dione Mason said.
It was their 16-year-old foster son, who legally cannot be identified. He came to live with them just a few weeks after they married earlier this year. He had just come home after playing basketball and working out. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the teen builds up an appetite.
"I think he saw it as a green light: 'This is my time to eat, '" Dione Mason said. "You hear stories about foster care homes where the fridge and kitchen cabinets are chained up and locked."
Twenty-seven-year-old Dione Mason knows well the plight of foster care youth. Not too long ago, he was a foster youth himself. Both of their mothers abused drugs. At age 6, Dione Mason found himself in Mildred Walls' home, which he describes as filled with unconditional love.
"I was one of her sons, one of her nephews, one of her grandsons," he said. "If she could take care of something like me at her age, in her 50s, I thought when I come of age, 'Why not?'"
Dione Mason said that when he was 18 years old, he decided he would someday become a foster parent, determined to provide another child the support he had. After community college, he attended Northwestern University, majoring in criminal justice and hoping to become a cop, and graduated. But many foster children do not go to college.
Only 6 percent of former foster youths had earned a two- or four-year degree by age 24, according to a 2010 study by researchers at the University of Chicago. Of those who left foster care at age 17 or 18, 34 percent reported being arrested by age 19.
Dione Mason said he wants to help his foster son avoid becoming another statistic. The teen wants to go into the military, and they are talking about a summer job at Jamba Juice and looking at colleges.
"We talk about how we can get him to those next steps," Dione Mason said. "I want the best for (him). Whatever he wants to accomplish, that's what I want."
His foster son is quiet, so they bonded over basketball, and because he likes photography, Dione Mason is encouraging him to build a portfolio. As a family, they have movie nights, take trips to Great America and go bowling.
"He looks at me like I'm his big brother," Dione Mason said. "That's fine, but I'm also your guardian."
They stand eye-to-eye, so when Dione Mason looks at him, it forces him to stare straight back and the foster son knows he means business.
As with any typical teen, Dione Mason has to reinforce bedtimes and to ask him to clean his room; video games often take priority.
"My wife will open his door, and it's like whoa, a tornado came though," he said. "Sometimes I ask if he needs help cleaning. Sometimes it takes 10 knocks on the door for him to do it."
Only 11 years older, Dione Mason knows how playing Xbox can trump homework, sleep and cleaning.
"Dione is young enough that he would understand, and he's old enough to set parameters," said E.C. Reems Principal Lisa Blair. "There's a bond."
Because of their mothers, Dione Mason said they both struggled with trusting women.
"It took me a long time to be in a stable relationship," he said. "I was able to give him some feedback on how I dealt with that."
At his school, Dione Mason finds that the students look up at him and relate to his story.
"They're like, 'Wow.' They kind of want to be under me," he said. "They see the drug dealers and the rappers on TV. They want to be like them until I tell them there's more to life than degrading a female, standing on the corner or having a big car with nice rims."
Blair said that the boys at school respect him and often go to him with questions.
But Dione Mason has lots of questions himself about how to raise his foster son. Being a new parent is difficult, but even more so is parenting an older child. He turns to his colleagues, Blair, his wife, social workers and even his foster mother.
"It's hard to also wear that father hat," he said, "but they're rooting for me."
That network of support is what he and his wife want to offer other foster youth. They are in the beginning stages of starting a nonprofit that would provide mentorship focusing on health and physical fitness to children ages 9 to 13.
"We've learned so much from our foster son," Paris Mason said. "We have our challenges, but it's really rewarding."