DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:
Every year, tens of thousands of teenagers will leave foster care and venture out on their own. States have a hodgepodge of programs aimed at helping them find independence. Louisiana is a place that's teaming up with the nonprofit Youth Villages to provide intensive one-on-one support to young people aging out of the foster system.
TARYN LAMAISON: Hey, you. What you doing? Nothing.
ELLIOTT: That's Taryn LaMaison, riding around New Orleans and using her phone to check in with a young man who's about to start a new job. She's what's known as a LifeSet specialist, a state worker who provides hands-on guidance for 18 to 21-year-olds who are no longer in traditional foster care because they're too old.
LAMAISON: I'm going to go get your glasses and mask? Why would I go get them for you, mister? You are the adult.
ELLIOTT: In short, Taryn's job is to help these young people learn how to adult. We spent some time with her in New Orleans recently to see what that looks like.
LAMAISON: Yeah, you're just going to take a right, and then you're going to take a left at the next light. OK.
ELLIOTT: And where are we headed? We're headed to Brandon's work.
ELLIOTT: Taryn LaMaison is a spitfire. Her bangs are dyed blue, and there's a dusting of glitter around her eyes. We arrive at a Creole restaurant.
LAMAISON: Hey, sweetheart. Can you clock out?
ELLIOTT: And Brandon Waldrop takes a break from his kitchen duty.
BRANDON WALDROP: Y'all want to go outside?
ELLIOTT: He's a lanky 21-year-old with a scruffy beard and a camouflage do-rag on his head.
How you doing? I'm Debbie.
WALDROP: I'm Brandon. Nice to meet y'all.
ELLIOTT: He's been working with Taryn for the last year. They've developed an easy rapport.
LAMAISON: Tell her about your lady.
WALDROP: Oh, yeah. Well, classic 150 - you know what I'm saying? - 2018, black. She go fast. Not about 80 fast you know what I'm saying?
ELLIOTT: That's his motorcycle.
LAMAISON: Why is she important to you?
WALDROP: I mean, well, it's my first vehicle. It's my first transportation. This is what I worked for, you know?
ELLIOTT: Finding reliable transportation is just one of the things that Taryn has helped Brandon figure out. He's from Ponchatoula, La. His parents were drug addicts, so he bounced in and out of foster care homes for most of his childhood. By his late teens, Brandon was running away from those group homes and trying to make it on his own. He lived on the streets or in abandoned trailers and was stealing.
WALDROP: I came from rock bottom. I had nothing, nothing at all - no home, no family, no food, nothing. It was cold at night, sleeping outside, sometimes on the sidewalk - everything. It was brutal.
ELLIOTT: Up until 2019, when foster care children in Louisiana turned 18, they were on their own. But a new law extended care through age 21 for young adults who meet certain criteria like having a job or going to school. It's voluntary, and Brandon has been in and out of it for the past three years.
WALDROP: They set me up for programs. They helped me cleared up court cases. I got paid a monthly check, which she was also telling me how to invest and save and stuff like that - basically just getting me prepared, telling me things I should've known, but I didn't do.
LAMAISON: I'm proud of you. I really am. You know that, right?
WALDROP: I came a long way, though, right?
LAMAISON: Oh, hell yeah (laughter).
WALDROP: That's what shocks me, though, is the simple fact that I went from being on the streets to having my own crib and my own bike and having a job now and all that 'cause this is not something I saw. This is not something I saw in my future.
ELLIOTT: Helping young people see that they can have a stable future is the goal of LifeSet, a program developed by the Memphis nonprofit Youth Villages. A number of philanthropies have contributed millions of dollars to support the initiative.
TIMOTHY ASHMORE: We believe that young people do well if they can.
ELLIOTT: That's Youth Villages regional director Timothy Ashmore. He says LifeSet serves as a bridge from the foster system into adulthood.
ASHMORE: You can imagine that these young people are ready to go. You know, they think they have it figured out. They're ready to take life by the horns already. So we really focus on that engagement piece when it comes to training, understanding where those young people are and meeting them there.
ELLIOTT: At first, caseworkers meet with the young people once a week for up to a year, then have monthly check-ins. Phone calls and texts are more frequent. Louisiana also provides a monthly stipend of up to $1,000. Shannon Catanzaro oversees the extended foster care program for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, known as DCFS.
SHANNON CATANZARO: We want our young adults to learn how to budget, and if you don't have money to budget with, you know, you need a little bit of income. You need to learn how to save your money. You need to learn how to pay bills. You know, you need that money for housing.
ELLIOTT: The LifeSet concept has been around since 1999, when Youth Villages saw that this age group was struggling, says Chief Strategy Officer Jessica Foster.
JESSICA FOSTER: Young people who age out of foster care are less likely to be in school. They're less likely to be working. They're less likely to have permanent housing and be more in a kind of couch-surfing situation. They're more likely to have mental health challenges.
ELLIOTT: Louisiana doesn't yet have data on whether LifeSet changes outcomes, but a 2015 study from Tennessee found that it boosted earnings, improved mental health and reduced domestic and partner violence. It did not improve outcomes in educational attainment or criminal involvement. LifeSet is now used in 18 states and D.C., largely driven by financial incentives from Youth Villages. For instance, Louisiana got a $3 million grant. It's seed money for a population that traditionally has drawn little government funding, especially in poorer states, where the priority tends to be helping younger children in crisis. Foster says there was also a lack of age-appropriate interventions.
FOSTER: You have a lot of systems in the United States right now that by and large serve older youth the same way they serve 12, 13, 14-year-olds, the same way they serve 4, 5, 6-year-olds.
ELLIOTT: LifeSet challenges that framework. For caseworker Taryn LaMaison, the key is developing meaningful and healthy human connections.
LAMAISON: We can teach them money management. We can teach them - I don't know - budgeting. We can teach them transportation needs. We can teach them employment, maintenance. We can - but sometimes we overlook part of living independently is actually interdependent living, where we also have to have relationships. And we need to build those relationships 'cause they're better for us as adults.
ELLIOTT: Taryn's next stop in New Orleans is to see Jarmira Butler, a cosmetology student with cat eyeliner and thick fake lashes.
JARMIRA BUTLER: These are the - I think these are the shortest lashes I've ever worn.
ELLIOTT: Oh, beautiful.
LAMAISON: When I saw her last week, they were, like, turquoise.
LAMAISON: Like, they were amazing.
BUTLER: Like, I add color to them.
LAMAISON: And she had kind of sparkly turquoise eyeshadow on that time (ph).
ELLIOTT: You sense a closeness as the two giggle together during Jarmira's lunch break from her classes. She was 18 when she was paired with Taryn as her LifeSet specialist and just turned 21 yesterday.
LAMAISON: Yeah, so we've been through plenty.
LAMAISON: Good and bad.
ELLIOTT: She was working on Bourbon Street, selling shots to tourists when she first came out of foster care and realized she needed more help.
BUTLER: I knew I wasn't completely ready to be alone, especially knowing that I was putting myself back in a situation that got me where I was.
ELLIOTT: She's a mother now. Her baby is 8 months old, and she's living with a partner who's helping her raise her son. Taryn says finding stable housing has been a recurring issue.
LAMAISON: I mean, it's like - it's just been one thing after another, even with Ida, not being able to pay your rent initially...
LAMAISON: ...Because she had gotten displaced and trying to come back to her apartment.
ELLIOTT: Ida is Hurricane Ida that struck New Orleans last year, leaving Jarmira with a newborn and no electricity. So she evacuated to Texas. It was a setback.
BUTLER: We had finally got it to where we're like, we had a savings. We're, like, a month ahead on our bills. And then Ida said, we're taking everything (laughter). And she took everything.
ELLIOTT: Taryn says in the aftermath of Ida, she had to resist the urge to fix things for Jarmira and instead point her to local emergency resources.
LAMAISON: Really, in the long run, what she didn't need was to fall back on DCFS. Where are we going to be next year if a hurricane hits? DCFS isn't going to be there. So she needs to learn, where do I go in my community to get the things and the help that DCFS has provided in the past? And she did it.
ELLIOTT: Jarmira says Taryn's voice now pops into her head when she's trying to navigate difficult situations, but she's finding the confidence to pursue her goal of getting her cosmetology license and starting her own business. Taryn LaMaison says hearing these young people planning for the future means her job is done.
LAMAISON: I help them dream, and that's really what I think of myself as, is just someone to inspire them to dream a little bit. Sometimes it seems like here in New Orleans, people forgot to dream. They've been here so many generations, and they've done the things the same every single generation, every single year, that they forgot there's something else out there.
ELLIOTT: But she may never know what that something else will be as she says goodbye to these 21-year-olds. Will Jarmira get her business off the ground? Will Brandon drive a tractor-trailer rig? In one of her last meetings with Brandon, Taryn has a parting gift.
LAMAISON: Brandon, I brought you what I was going to bring you.
WALDROP: What is it?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
WALDROP: That's a bell.
LAMAISON: Oh, it's not just a bell. Look at his face. He's like, what? OK.
WALDROP: Hold on. Where's it go?
LAMAISON: I will tell you the story. All motorcycle riders should have a bell. It's called a guardian bell.
ELLIOTT: Taryn hopes the bell will keep all of the dangers of the road away, to keep him safe when she's no longer there.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ELLIOTT: This story was produced by Hiba Ahmad and edited by Melissa Gray.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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