Young mother takes the Next Step toward independence

Emilia had to grow up quickly as a pregnant teenager, but she was shoved headlong into the deep end of the adult pool when her mother passed away and she, her newborn daughter and her brothers were sent to different foster homes.

“I got pregnant when I was 15 years old, and it’s been difficult for me and for my brothers,” says the now 21-year-old. “When I was younger, I was in the streets. I thought I was a hardcore gangster. When I found out I was pregnant, everything hit me all at once, and that’s when reality slapped me. And then when my mother passed away, it slapped me again. I became a mother, and I lost my mother at the same time.”

Today, Emelia is navigating adulthood with the help of San Antonio’s THRU Project, a nonprofit organization that provides mentors and assistance to a forgotten population of former foster children who have aged out of the foster care system. They are thrust into the world, all alone, to figure out how to survive and become independent. More than 1,500 former foster youth age out each year in Texas, with hundreds in the San Antonio area alone. A staggering number of these youths are homeless, unemployed, uneducated, pregnant, incarcerated and addicted.

Emelia also is in THRU Project's new Next Step housing program, living in a local apartment for up to one year rent free. To participate in the program, youth must be employed, attend life skills workshops, meet with their mentors, contribute to a savings account monthly, and establish and maintain a personal budget among other stipulations.

THRU Project was co-founded by Hill Country Bakery owner Steve O’Donnell, who was placed in foster care at 3 days old in New York. Although he was innately driven and entrepreneurial, he watched his older foster sister, Cecilia, spiral out of control.  As yet another foster care statistic, she was a teen runaway who became pregnant and lost custody of her child to the state. She experienced homelessness, prostitution, incarceration and addiction. Her second child also was sent to foster care. Eventually, she died of a drug overdose.

“ I always thought if I got somewhere in life where I could afford to help foster youth I’d like to do that, because I saw what it did to some of the foster youth I grew up with,” O’Donnell says. In 2011, he and THRU Project CEO Elaine Andries Hartle teamed up to develop THRU Project to match volunteer advisors to foster youth. Hartle had been struggling to find assistance and mentors for her own foster sons aging out of care.

“I know our program is helping youth at a time where they are very, very vulnerable in their life,” O’Donnell says.

Emelia was introduced to the Texas foster care system at age 12, when she and her brothers were taken away from their mother. The family was later reunited, but it wasn’t an easy life being poor in the heart of the Alamo City, where youth can become prey to all society’s ills. Then Emilia’s mother died, and the family was split up again.

Emelia says as she watched her mother take her dying breaths, a caseworker was waiting outside to take custody of the orphaned children. Finding foster placements for four siblings is rare, so Emilia and her older brother were separated from her younger brother and the baby. In the six months before the young mother and daughter were allowed to be together, Emelia was awash in grief from the loss of her mother and her family.  “I dropped out of high school.  I was an A/B honor roll student. I just started closing down on everybody. I started getting depressed,” she says.

But she didn’t give up, and THRU Project has been there to help her work toward independence.

“THRU Project has helped me a lot in the time period that I’ve been in it, because they provided bus fare for me, they gave me a cell phone. They have been there tremendously,” she says.

Emilia’s also says her advisor is an important part of her life. “She listens to my problems and she’s always giving me advice. What I want her here for is to hear me, since I don’t have my mother, and that’s what she has been doing. I don’t know what I’d do without THRU Project. I wouldn’t know at all, because they gave me a special person.”

 Now settled into apartment, Emelia is taking the next steps toward independence. She has hopes of getting an education and dreams for her 5-year-old daughter’s future. “It’s been really hard for me to go back to school. I want to go finish my GED, go to college and become a somebody. I want to be an attorney,” she proclaims, adding that she wants even more for her daughter. “I want to her to finish high school then go to college. I want to at least see at least my baby walk the stage, because mommy didn’t get to walk the stage, because I chose not to. I gave up. I want her to be as strong as I am, but stronger, more independent.

“It’s been really rough, but every time when I want to give up, I can’t. I have to look at her, and she’s the reason why I want to keep going. She’s the reason why I want to be a somebody,” Emelia continues.  “I’m not going to lie, there are some times when I hit rock bottom, but I have to push myself back up, back to the surface because, if not, I’m probably going to end up losing it. It’s been real difficult, raising her on my own.  People ask, 'how do you do it?' You just got to find your motivation, and she is my motivation. I would do anything for this little girl.”