Today, 21-year-old former foster youth Tyara “Tee” Clark turns to her faith, dance and advocacy work to keep her going and help her find balance in her life. She’s currently studying education and hopes to become a teacher one day. Often though, she is forced to take out “payday” loans to make ends meet. Below in her own words, Tee recounts her story of living in foster care and later kinship care from the time she was born.
“I live in La Verne, California and commute 23 miles daily to school and work. It seems far, but my education is worth it. My goal is to earn an Associate’s Degree in Education and then transfer to a four-year university to major in education and become a teacher. I would ultimately like to become an elementary school teacher, then an administrator and eventually a school principle.
As a college student, I am not eligible for the Chafee Grant, a $5,000 annual grant for foster youth, because I lived with relatives or kinship care, before the age of 16. That means I have had to work two jobs to make ends meet, although I still don’t get paid enough to feel like my life is stable.
It’s a struggle being on my own. I am barely able to pay my bills. I take out small loans from check cashing agencies for no more than $50 at a time to meet my obligations, but I immediately repay them when I get funds from employment or financial aid. I am trying to do the right thing, keep my eyes on the prize, and focus on my education and the positive influences in my life. I am ever so grateful and thankful for the structures and resources that have helped me, even when the availability of those resources didn’t come fast enough. My faith in God and prayer are my life force. Praising God for my blessings and challenges in my life is what strengthens and fortifies my soul and keeps me pressing on every day. I fuel this into my activities at the church.
But that’s not where I started.
I was born in August of 1995 in Los Angeles, California. I was placed in foster care at birth because my mother was diagnosed schizophrenic, due to all the drugs she had taken. Never knowing my father growing up, it saddens me that I didn’t at least have a healthy relationship with my mother.
I lived in two foster homes until I was 5 when my biological grandfather and step-grandmother were granted guardianship of me. When I went to live with them in Compton, CA they were only receiving Social Security as their main income, so there was not much they could do for me financially. They were very accustomed to their old-school traditions, so taking me out to theme parks or to the movies was just not something they did. Throughout elementary and high school, I was jealous of my friends’ relationships with their parents and their trips to the mall, movies, dinner and fun amusement parks. Hearing this consistently over time caused me to hate my birth mother and father for not being there for me. The pain I felt every day followed me throughout high school.
A troublemaker in school, I would always get into fights. But I realized in middle school that I had to put a stop to that so that I could focus on passing all my classes, graduating middle school and receiving a high school diploma. In middle school, I joined M.E.S.A Mathematics Science Achievements and I won awards at public speaking competitions. I found that this, along with dancing, was my passion. I started my own dance club because I did not make the cheerleading squad.
When I got to Dominguez High School, I became part of the B.S.U. (Black Student Union) where students learned about African American culture. In 2013, I was appointed President where I facilitated meetings, sponsored talent shows and many other events. I also founded Club F.L.O.A. (Future Leaders of America) to mentor ninth graders. Being active helped me cope with my stress and anxiety, since I did not receive support from my grandparents or the few family members from my grandfather’s side of the family.
When I was 18 years old, I left my grandparent’s house because it was no longer safe for me to live there and started applying to many housing programs. Since making money was a necessity, I started working at a sales and marketing company in Culver City where I became a hiring manager and trainer three months later. During that time, I was finally accepted to Pacific Clinics, a transitional housing program in Pasadena for foster youth age 18-24, who provided me with a two-bedroom apartment. I lived there with a roommate and paid 30% of my income for rent.
While living in my new apartment and working in Culver City, I realized I was the only one at my company who did not have a college degree. I was 19 years old. Even though the money was really good, I knew I had to think long term and decided I needed a college degree. I also started to understand more about the meaning of church and God, and I learned how to forgive through prayer. I forgave my mother for never being there for me and I gained knowledge of why my birth parents were not able to care for me all those years. Going to church changed my life. Ever since then I’ve kept my head up, and I know that God is my father.
A year later while I was enrolled at Pasadena City College, Pacific Clinics Housing Program shut down due to lack of funding. They gave me a piece of paper with a few resources and 60 days to move out. I called all the numbers I could find for housing programs, only to find dead ends. The 60 days arrived and I still had nowhere to go, so I lived in my car for two days. Eventually I found Hathaway-Sycamores. They had a transitional housing program for young people ages 18-21 and they took me in, even though they didn’t have any space.
Six months before I turned 21 (which is when I would become ineligible to stay at Hathaway-Sycamores), I began applying again to permit housing, regular apartments and Section 8 programs. When I finally turned 21, all my feelings of worry, insecurity, rejection and withdrawal came rushing back. I worried about living in my car again. I faced the reality of possibly withdrawing from school. I was employed but with only one part-time job. Yet, Hathaway-Sycamores had mercy and allowed me to stay in their program until I found somewhere else to live.”