Paying It Forward

Shaquenta "Q" McDonald, a former transitional age youth and now Program Coordinator for Los Angeles nonprofit Hathaway-Sycamores can relate to the many struggles foster youth face.

Shaquenta "Q" McDonaldFor transitional age youth (TAY), finding and securing housing and employment while staying mentally, physically and emotionally strong can be tough. Shaquenta “Q” McDonald, a former TAY and now Program Coordinator for Los Angeles’ nonprofit Hathaway-Sycamores, knows all too well and can relate to the many struggles foster youth face. After aging out, she was homeless for two years before getting housing help from Hathaway-Sycamores. As a give back, Q joined the organization and has been there for the past 10 years. In her role today, she channels her own experience and learnings into helping fellow TAY get what they need.

“I meet with foster youth from the ages of about 18 to 25 on a regular basis to understand their background, traumas and mental health issues; assess their needs, gaps, frustrations, struggles and opportunities; and help provide them the right tools to keep going,” says Q. “I know one guy who reached out to Hathaway-Sycamores the same time I did 10 years ago. Both of us were young teenagers–homeless and living day to day–and they offered us both resources to get our life back on track. I took it, but he didn’t follow through. I’m here, and he’s still sleeping on the same park bench.”


Q was only in foster care for three years from the age of 14 to 17, but to her “it felt like a lifetime,” she says.

“When I entered the foster care system at 14, I came from a previous abusive and neglectful situation at home,” Q says. “My uncle who came to live with my parents took his frustration and anger out on me for years. Eventually it showed on my face and my body. One day, the social workers called and took me away from my family and placed me into foster care. Over the next three years, I tried to find stability but only experienced more neglect, depression, outrage and trauma. I didn’t trust anyone. I went to nine different schools, two foster homes, three kinship placements and eventually two group homes before emancipating at 17.

I graduated from Arrow high and received my high school diploma the moment I received housing from Hathaway Sycamores. In fact, my team (clinician & Community wellness specialist/youth specialist) attended my graduation. It was so supportive which was exactly what I needed at that time.”

After emancipating or “aging out,” reality set in. Completely on her own with very few resources, no family guidance, no community support, no high school diploma and nowhere else to turn, Q became homeless. She lived on the streets of Los Angeles for two years under bridges and in parks to survive. When she realized that she couldn’t sustain that life any longer, she decided to get help and looked locally at immediate shelters.

“There comes a time when you know it’s time to get help and reach out,” admitted Q. “Up until that point, I had practically no educational resources or mentors to guide me. Heck, I couldn’t even afford the most basic health insurance.”

Q first found help through Los Angeles’ Casey Family Programs and Jim Casey Youth Opportunities who referred her to Hathaway-Sycamores. After interviewing with them and being accepted into their housing program, she received a monthly allowance, an apartment of her own and a list of internship, employment and college prep resources. After working in several short-term gigs, Q decided to look within Hathaway-Sycamores, the organization which she says first helped her turn her life around. They provided her an internship and soon after promoted her to employee where she’s been ever since. Talking with Q today, it’s clear she’s a passionate advocate of supporting TAY during their most critical years and plans to keep paying it forward as long as she can, she says, to make a difference.

The Reality of TAY Today & Helping Them Overcome Challenges

Q’s story of leaving the foster care system without the proper resources for high school completion, employment, health care, continued educational opportunities, housing and living arrangements rings true for a majority of TAY in Southern California. Many lack basic education, life skills, medical, dental, psychological and psychiatric assistance, don’t know where to turn for support and homelessness becomes very real. In fact, of the 28,000 transitional age youth (TAY) aging out every year, only 25% of TAY are able to find and secure consistent employment and housing the first year.

More importantly, a TAY’s well-being can be severely impacted during this period of their lives. They can experience a range of traumas and mental health issues, including: attachment problems, obesity, substance abuse, incarcerations, school failure, unemployment, prolonged suffering, homelessness and becoming parents at an early age. A recent study from the Child Welfare Information Gateway listed the following six areas of well-being which TAY need to achieve to become successful adults:

  • Intellectual potential: maximizing their intellectual ability.
  • Social development: social support and emotional wellness to build a strong self-identity, relationships and feel hopeful about life and future.
  • Mental wellness: ability to manage their own mental health and wellness.
  • Physical health: ability to manage their physical health and strength.
  • Economic success: achieving educational success, obtaining steady employment and obtaining stable and affordable housing.
  • Safety and permanency: ensuring they are physically and psychologically safe from abuse and neglect, and belong to a family for a lifetime.

There are several resources available today for TAY to access:

  • The California Fostering Connections to Success Act, which extends foster care services to age 21 and allows youth still in the foster care system to access support, services and programs.
  • The Affordable Care Act, which extends Medicaid coverage to foster youth until age 26 giving them more chances to access, enroll in and take advantage of the affordable health insurance options.
  • Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles which helps young people across 15 states including California–a majority of them foster youth–build family connections and have access to employment opportunities, healthcare, safe housing and other mental health resources.