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After years in foster care, young Alameda woman gets her own room

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.

After years of changing rooms, Lackaff was able to decorate her new room with elements of her personality.

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?

Jayla Lackaff, 22, says she plans to study video game design.  She is currently pursuing her general studies at the College of Alameda, playing video games in her free time to relax.
Jayla Lackaff, 22, says she plans to study video game design. She is currently pursuing her general studies at the College of Alameda, playing video games in her free time to relax.

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