By Edward Henderson
Asking for help can be difficult. When you’ve lived your entire life with a revolving door of case workers, temporary living situations and parental figures it’s hard to let trust be a foundation for something positive. The conversation changes when you step into a room full of individuals who’ve lived your same story. Just in Time is a non-profit organization that serves foster youth who have aged out of the juvenile court system. All 16 of their staff members are former foster youths.
The grassroots organization was founded in 2002 by child advocacy attorney Janet Day. She noticed support for foster youth drop after getting out of the system when they turned 18. Day gathered friends and community members together to see how they could do something to help. They made gift baskets for youth during the holidays and noticed the lack of furniture in the apartments they lived in. As a result, Day and friends gathered used furniture to donate and help decorate their apartments.
The kind act transformed into an initiative for community connection and self-sustainability with the creation of Just in Time. The group of dedicated women added more services to match the needs of foster youth in the realms of education, job training, housing and self-development. Just in Time achieved non-profit status in 2006 and served 777 youth between the ages of 18 and 26 last year.
An integral part of the organization are its staff members. Malissa Gutierez and Marquelle Edwards are both former foster youth who now serve as coordinators at Just in Time. Gutierez’s journey began as a former youth receiving services from the organization.
“I had a lot of people coming and going in my life so I didn’t know who I could rely on. It took time for me to open up and know that I could help them just as much as they helped me. I couldn’t have done it without this bigger community,” Gutierez said.
She began as a volunteer and transitioned to a full time staff position in 2014. Gutierez currently works with volunteers training them on the nuances of foster care and building relationships with a young person. Her life experience is a valuable asset in teaching them how to overcome challenges that may arise building trust and consistency.
Edwards is a native of Flint, Michigan and came to San Diego through the military after his days in the foster care system. He first joined Just in Time as a volunteer through the Wounded Warriors Program and quickly found a home within the organization.
“I wasn’t able to speak about being in foster care, I was embarrassed about it. I got here and a saw all of the coordinators were former foster youth and it was pretty therapeutic for me to be here as well. I use these experiences to show the young people that you don’t have to take the route towards negativity that’s there for you,” Edwards said.
As the Youth Services Coordinator, Edwards works in close quarters with foster youth to provide emotional support, build their confidence and strengthen their self-esteem.
Ja’mount Bradley, 24, can attest to the importance of his relationship with Edwards. A Southeast native, Bradley was caught up in drugs and crime growing up in the foster program. After serving time for a felony charge, he came to Just in Time for a second chance.
“The gangs and the streets raised me. I never had anybody to look up to. My mom isn’t there, I was always looking up to the wrong people. Now I have people who have my back,” Bradley said. “A lot it just taking someone believing in you. I was going to give up. My relationship with Marquelle went from being a supervisor to being a big brother.”
Today Bradley works in the kitchen at Bracero Cocina Mexican Restaurant and will graduate from the culinary program provided by a partner to Just in Time called Kitchens for Good later this month. In the future he plans on starting a restaurant that will provide jobs for ex-felons and foster youth.
“There’s people out there who don’t understand the background of where we come from and think we’re bad just because we want to be. Something like this can change all that around,” Bradley said.
To learn more about how to get involved with Just in Time as a volunteer or referral for services, visit jitfosteryouth.org.