Local activists and donors, former foster youths, and legislative pioneers on women’s and children’s issues came together Friday, May 9th, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the YWCA Santa Monica/Westside’s Housing and Education Program.

For ten years, the YWCA’s Housing and Education program has worked to help young women aging out of the foster care system build a successful future by providing the social support, services and skills training necessary for a healthy, self-sufficient life.

State Senator Sheila Kuehl, Sylvia Castillo, district director for State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and YWCA housing program alumnae and current residents were among those in attendance at the celebration.

“They got it wrong when they said, ‘It’s like a home,'” Stephanie Ortega, who has been with the program since August, said after a slideshow featuring quotes from the program’s residents and alumni. “It is a home. It’s a family, and I don’t know where I’d be without it.”

All speakers acknowledged children placed in and recently emancipated from foster care as the state’s most vulnerable population, and honored the Housing and Education program’s comprehensive and innovative approach to the challenges presented by the current state of foster care in Los Angeles County.

“There is no good news about the budget,” said Kuehl, after lauding Bass’s leadership in bringing $82 million to foster care reform, which is now in jeopardy. “We are counting — as we have always counted — on community-based organizations like this one to pick up slack for a government that has been systematically starved for 20 years.”

Castillo agreed that young people need a support system that will help them develop the skills they need to achieve, and said that preparing foster youths for a future free of homelessness and incarceration is a top priority, as based on the following statistics:

— Two years after emancipation, 25 percent of California foster youths are incarcerated.

— One in five individuals emancipated from foster care in this state has been homeless.

— Three percent of foster youths go on to attain college degrees, compared to 20 percent of the overall population.

Thousands of young women age out of the Los Angeles County foster care system each year with little or no direction, guidance or support, according to a YWCA housing program spokesperson. Skills and resources necessary to pursue education and career goals are often minimal, and the financial burdens are significant, the spokesperson said.

The YWCA’s comprehensive and intensive Housing and Education Program recognizes that the best chance for each young woman to reach her goals is to stay in school, the spokesperson said. Providing a safe environment, food, and access to the social support and services allows the residents to successfully transition to adult independent living.

The residents are provided with the program for up to two-and-a-half years while they attend school full-time, work part-time, save for their future, learn life skills and take responsibility for the upkeep of the home. Of the 25 women who have participated in the program, 100 percent have attained a college degree or certification.