Op-Ed: Foster youth to Mayor de Blasio, ‘Save Fair Futures!’

Alexander Santana (third from right) and his coach Nayeli Ariz.
Courtesy of The Children's Aid

BY ALEXANDER SANTANA 

Growing up was tough. I entered foster care when I was five and have been pushed from home-to-home since then. I’ve been placed in the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and on Long Island. Now, I’m a 20-year-old full-time student at GED/HSE Future Now at Bronx Community College, living independently, with dreams of one day becoming a motivational speaker to inspire other youth in care like me.

I know there are odds stacked against me. For young people who age out of care in New York City at age 21, just 21% complete high school, many end up involved in the criminal justice system and one in five become homeless by age 24.

I, however, will not become a statistic, thanks to the unwavering support of my Fair Futures coach, Nayeli Ariza.

A Fair Futures coach is someone who is there to support youth in foster care from middle school through age 26 with everything from school, work and college applications to finding a job and a safe place to live. While most people have family to lean on, youth in care often have no one to turn to, especially in New York City, where every year over 600 of us age out without adult support.

Before I first met Nayeli, I never knew what it meant to have someone you can count on through thick and thin. Moving through different foster care homes, I spent my childhood feeling frustrated and abandoned. There were countless times where I didn’t know how I’d make it through another day. I distanced myself from everyone around me, even dropping out of high school when I was 17. It was shortly after then that I met Nayeli.

Without Nayeli’s help, I would still be lost and struggling. She believed in me unlike anyone else ever had. She helped me realize I had to refocus and explore opportunities for myself. I didn’t discover Fair Futures until many years after being in care, but in the short time I’ve worked with my coach, I’ve learned there are people who care for my well being, people I can lean on. I can only imagine what great impact a Fair Futures coach would have on a young person in need of assistance and guidance throughout their life.

When schooling switched to remote learning amid COVID-19, I didn’t know how I would be able to attend and I started to wonder if I should even attempt to finish, but she helped me find access to a laptop and pushed me to continue. This is just one of the many things I would not have accomplished without her.

Through this pandemic, she has been checking in with me via text, call, email and video chat to make sure that I am doing ok and have everything I need, even helping me make sure I’m set up for success for a summer job. Since the moment I met her, my coach has helped me tremendously, so much so that I decided to take an opportunity to advocate on behalf of youth in care who need a coach and life mentor.

As a Fair Futures youth advocate, I show others like me that a supporting hand can make all the difference. I speak on what a coach can provide to a youth in foster care, as someone who wishes he had someone there for him in the early years.

That’s why it’s inconceivable to me that Mayor de Blasio is looking to cut Fair Futures from the city budget, especially as the mayor made a recent commitment to divert funds to social and youth services for at-risk New Yorkers. I have no doubt that stopping a program like this in its tracks will have devastating effects for youth in care like me for years to come.

Fair Futures coaches want to fight for us, so I’m fighting with them, alongside other youth and coaches, to call for Fair Futures funding. New York City leaders can help us gain access to the support we need to secure a more promising future. Now is the time for the city to show us they care.

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