As a child, Jayla Lackaff often escaped to the expansive worlds of her favorite video games to get away from her turbulent reality – the computer screen, a wall separating her from the clashes between her mother and stepfather, who often argued around her, if not about her.
“I was the scapegoat for a lot of things,” Lackaff said.
She had no idea at the time that video games would later provide an oasis after her placement in foster care, nor that they would turn into a professional endeavor as she pieced together her adult life with the help from First Place for Youth, a non-profit organization. based in Oakland that provides housing and case management to individuals aging out of the foster care system and entering adulthood.
When his parents’ relationship deteriorated, Lackaff ended up living elsewhere. Midway through her junior year of high school, her mother sent her to leave their home in San Francisco to live with her aunt in Oregon. When she returned to second grade, her mother was quick to ask if she could stay with some school friends for a while. So Lackaff started couch surfing.
“At the time, I didn’t realize it was serious,” she said. One day during therapy, she spoke about her situation. The therapist told him he had an obligation to report what was happening.
Lackaff ended up in state custody. She spent her adolescence in different foster families in the city. One day, after being assigned to a group home in Sacramento, far from her life and friends, Lackaff ran away. Amid these constant moves, a high school diploma was never her priority: by the first year, she had dropped out. It would be a few years before he completed his GED.
After getting older the system that IIn 2019, at the age of 18, Lackaff began receiving state aid in the amount of $1,060 per month, but money was about all the program offered her: she n had no case supervisor, no one to help him transition out of the system, no one on his team.
She started working 35 hours a week at Starbucks and moved in with her boyfriend to save money on rent. Even after their breakup, the couple continued to live together – Lackaff didn’t have the funds to strike out on his own.
A way out came via his former social worker. He offered to put her in touch with First Place for Youth, which offers housing through its “My First Place” program.
The nonprofit hopes to raise $20,000 through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which highlights organizations that provide services to help people improve their lives. Funds can help First Place for Youth provide foster youth like Lackaff with housing and other supports so they can focus on developing the skills they need to transition into adulthood.
Last January, the organization found an apartment in Alameda for Lackaff, now 22. She lives with a roommate who also recently left foster care.
In addition to free housing, Lackaff has a guidance counselor who encouraged her to continue her education. So when she came across a game design program, she felt like she could consider a career for herself.
“It’s the perfect mix of a profitable skill that will sustain me and something that will make me feel fulfilled,” Lackaff said.
Carmen Gomez, Lackaff’s supervisor at First Place for Youth, says that by providing additional resources beyond housing, the organization can help program participants chart their own paths.
“Sometimes when you’re taking the next steps on your own, it can be overwhelming,” said Gomez, who herself participated in the My First Place program in 2009. “But when you have a support system, when you having people who know what you need to succeed is like a weight being lifted off your shoulders.
Last semester, Lackaff enrolled in general education classes at the College of Alameda, just a few doors down from her apartment. In a few years, she hopes to attend UC Santa Cruz.
Without the housing provided by the nonprofit, Lackaff isn’t sure she would be on track to earn a degree.
“Going to school and working wasn’t really feasible,” she said. “Moving here gave me stability…now I can think: what are the things I want to improve? What are the things I just want to do?
The program has a proven track record of helping foster youth obtain stable housing. While 40% of the nation’s former foster youth found themselves homeless by age 24, according to statistics from First Place for Youth, 92% of youth who graduated from the program obtained stable housing at the end. Similarly, 83% of program participants completed post-secondary education while in the program, compared to only 20% of youth in foster care.
After years of moving around, Lackaff is happy to have a stable space. Although First Place for Youth provided some of the initial furniture for the two-bedroom apartment, Lackaff used her available money to furnish her place just the way she likes it. Under her desk, she installed rainbow LED lights. She attached a TV screen to a stand on casters so she could position it to play video games from her bed or recliner.
“This is my room,” Lackaff said. “I can do anything I want.”
On a Monday evening earlier this fall, Lackaff was winding down at the end of the day with Zelda and Minecraft, which she now uses to distract herself from schoolwork rather than a turbulent home life.
“Before, it was kind of chaos all the time,” Lackaff said. “Now I can focus on myself.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunity to East Bay residents by helping raise funds for nonprofit programs in counties Alameda and Contra Costa.
How to help
Donations will help First Place for Youth provide housing, counseling, education and employment support to 140 young adults ages 18-25 in Contra Costa and Alameda counties who are transitioning the foster care system. Goal: $20,000
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail this form.
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