SAN ANTONIO – Each year an estimated 1,359 young adults age out of foster care in Texas.
Some leave as soon as they turn 18 while others continue to live in the state's care until they turn 22.
Regardless of when they leave, it's often a dangerous time in their lives. They face challenges finding housing, getting jobs and taking care of themselves -- many times with kids of their own.
According to statistics, it's not uncommon for many former foster children to end up homeless or incarcerated.
A few find a way to persevere, taking advantage of state programs that offer free tuition for college and breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect.
While the state provides programs to prepare foster care youth for life on their own it's often not enough, that's where nonprofits come in to fill the gaps.
One of those programs in San Antonio is the THRU Project which connects former foster youth with mentors.
"Probably when they need the state the most, when they're separating, is when they want the state the least because they've been in the system, they're not happy with the outcomes of the system and so they want to get as far away from foster care as they can and that's a very delicate time for any youth's life," said Steve O'Donnell, co-founder of THRU Project. "That's when they really need some help so they can be guided into the right direction. Without that guidance, all too often, what happens is youth will become homeless, get involved in illegal activity, whether it's drugs, robberies, petty crime."
O'Donnell started THRU with a local foster mom in 2011 to provide support to young adults aging out of care. He knows first hand the challenges foster kids face when they leave care, he spent 18 years in the New York foster care system. He was just three days old when he entered care. O'Donnell considers himself fortunate, unlike many children in foster care he lived with the same family, which provided him a sense of stability others rarely experience.
He believes that consistency helped keep him on a path that kept him out of trouble and from becoming a statistic. He overcame the challenges he faced and now runs a successful commercial bakery in San Antonio that makes baked goods for coffee shops and several stores across the country.
Over the years O'Donnell spent in care he saw other foster children come and go from his home. He recalled one "foster sister," Cecilia, who left the home when she was 13. He said she was bounced around the system in different placements until she got lost in the system and became a sad statistic.
"Eventually she became a teenage runaway, got into teenage prostitution, got into drugs, wound up having two children by the time she was 21 both of whom were taken away from her and then unfortunately she died of a drug overdose when she was 44 years old," O'Donnell said. "She just got lost in the system, there was really no one person who was really looking out for her best interest."
Years later O'Donnell would use his sister's death as motivation to give back, creating THRU to provide guidance and support to former foster kids who might not realize they need help.
"The thinking is try to get them before they age out, put them with an advisor so they form that bond, and then we'll work with youth pretty much as long as they need us," O'Donnell said. "I kind of feel like if Cecilia had that person in her life, her outcome could have been different."
Emelia Hernandez's journey through the Texas foster care system began when she was 8 years old.
She and her brothers were removed by Child Protective Services worker when their mother became too ill to care for them.
The siblings were in and out of foster care until their mother died. Hernandez was 16 and the mother of a 7 month old daughter.
"The state took over all us when my mother passed away," Hernandez said. "They gave us a chance to go with my family to her funeral, to go bury her. After that they took us. Our whole life turned upside down. My mom was my backbone, my mom was my hero, my mom was my best friend, my sister. She was everything to me and if I could give up anything right now I would give it up just to have her."
Hernandez and her brothers were separated by CPS and her daughter was taken away from her.
After bouncing between emergency shelters and group homes she landed at a facility for pregnant teens and young mothers in the foster care system. She lived there until she aged out of care two years later. She thought she was ready to be on her own.
"I left when I was 18 because I thought that it was going to be easy, I thought that every thing was going to be OK," Hernandez said. "I quickly realized that reality had slapped the living crap out of me. I was homeless as a matter of fact, I was living at Haven for Hope for about a month."
Hernandez admits at that time she was tempted to run with gang members and sell drugs to survive but instead decided to sign herself back into foster care.
"That saved my life because I was already heading in the bad direction once again," Hernandez said. "It was really hard, I prayed a lot to God to tell him, like please give me back to my brothers, let my brothers come back to me, give me back my mom."
Hernandez eventually aged out of care in September.
Jessica Francis spent five years in the Texas foster care system before she aged out.
"Right before I turned 13 I entered the foster care system with my older sister and younger brother. We were not placed together throughout those several years I was there," Francis said. "I was at a shelter for a few months, then from there I was fortunate enough to be in one foster home until I turned 18."
Francis said she lived in a home with a single mother who was loving and supportive but she never really bonded with her foster mom and didn't feel like she could turn to her for advice.
"I did feel a little alone. I like to tell people now that at one point I feel like Google was my adviser," Francis said.
When she turned 18 Jessica moved out and took advantage of the free tuition waver offered by the state and attended Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Her experiences growing up served as her motivation to break free.
"Something long ago when I was a little kid was embedded in my mind and from seeing my environment I knew I didn't want to take those paths so that was one thing that helped me control certain behaviors and want to try to open new doors and try new things. I wanted to do something different," Francis said. "I didn't want to be in jail or on the streets, or be on drugs or anything like that I didn't want to do that."
Francis got pregnant with a son while attending college and moved back to San Antonio to be closer to the remaining family she had here and finished her degree at UTSA, earning a bachelor's in criminal justice. She put her knowledge to use by going to work for Child Protective Services.
"That's when I got to see the whole other side of the system and seeing how being in foster care affected other people. I knew how it affected my brother and sister and it affected them completely differently than me," Francis said. 'There were several young adults that just reminded me of how important it is to have that stability and have someone there that you know and that you're comfortable with. Just to try to imagine what that feels like when you're taken out of your comfort zone and how that could affect people long term."
Francis didn't last long at CPS and eventually found her way to the THRU Project where she now works as a program administrator, connecting mentors to former foster youth.
"Most of these young adults have no one reliable to turn to when things get tough or they need some life advice that's why they need a life mentor. Just having someone there even if it's to celebrate you getting an A in a class or getting a job interview, you cannot replace that with anything else," Francis said. "Hearing someone say they're proud of you, you cannot replace that at all and you don't have to have any special skills or talents, or have been in foster care, just you caring is what matters. I think that's what helps motivate young adults, knowing that someone's there on their side or behind them, supporting and clapping and cheering them on, will help encourage and help them do better."
Even though she's in charge of matching foster youth to their advisors, Francis said she often finds herself advising the young adults, sharing her own story to show them anything is possible.
"I like to be the other one saying, 'Hey do it, if I did it you can do it too,'" Francis said. "You can't do it by yourself. You don't have to have someone there holding your hand but if you have someone there just in case you need to ask them, 'Hey what would you do in this situation?', that's like a lifesaver."
It was Francis who introduced Hernandez to THRU and got her hooked up with an adviser.
While relatively new to the program, Hernandez said she has enjoyed interacting with her adviser, calling her for advice whenever she needs it.
"No matter what, whatever I need I just pick up the phone and I can call her," Hernandez said. "Everyone there is for me. They're never going to take my mom's place but they can at least try to help me and guide me like my mother would."
With the support of her mentor and help from other local agencies, Hernandez has been able to find a home and a job.
THRU provides her a monthly bus pass to get around town and a phone to stay in contact with her adviser but most importantly they provided her hope.
"I have more than hope, I have more because of the people who are around me," Hernandez said. "Being our mentor doesn't mean take us out to eat, go buy us clothes, no! Sit down, talk to us, tell us how we're doing, ask us if we need anything, if we need help with our homework, if we need help with our college classes, if we need help with anything. Just be there and help us, guide us to the right path, you don't have to sit there and spend money on us. All we want is for someone to show that they care."
Steve O'Donnell believes the work THRU is doing is changing lives and saving lives by simply providing a little support and compassion to those in need.
"All they really think about is today or this week, surviving, and so one of the things we have to do for youth is to instill the hope and the dream, so they can grow beyond the circumstance and that's why at THRU we say that we're fostering hope after foster care and that's really what we're trying to do, to show them that no matter where you started out at that's not where you have to end," O'Donnell said. "Dream big, work hard, and hopefully you can get there. "It takes faith and hope and hard work to get there but it can be done."