| | By Mike Rosen-Molina
| Photos by Margaretta K. Mitchell.
While working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Diana Brown heard a story that changed her life. One of her managers told her about his childhood in foster care, how he had lost his parents at age 2 and then suffered years of abuse at the hands of his foster mother, his aunt. The story stuck with Brown; she couldn’t stop thinking about kids trapped in similar situations. She started to probe deeper and learned the grim statistics: Only 50 percent of foster youth graduate from high school, and, of those, only 20 percent continue on to higher education. And three out of every 10 homeless people are former foster kids.
“Something like that was unthinkable in Chinese culture,” says Brown, who grew up in Taiwan. “It was so foreign to me. Elders and children are the most precious; when you have a child, you do everything you can to support them. To know that kids are being abused is unthinkable.”
Until that revelation, Diana Brown had a successful career in information technology. At the top of her field, she had 21 years as IT department head at U.C. Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. But that one conversation inspired her to give it all up.
“Since then, my life in IT was not enough,” says Brown, who lives in Oakland. “I had a wonderful career, but I just felt a calling to do something for foster youth.”
In 2008, she retired early to create something that could help former foster kids graduate from high school, pursue a college education, find jobs, and stay off the streets.
Most people dismissed her new passion as a whim; the Berkeley professors she approached for advice thought she would give up before they ever saw her again and even her own husband refused to have much to do with her new venture at first. But five years later, SOAR for Youth is thriving—members of the first class are old enough to graduate from high school, and Brown, once thought just a dreamer, has made a name for herself as a tireless advocate for foster youth.
Beginning in middle school, the SOAR for Youth program consists of three years of summer residential academies on the Cal campus—SOAR students are housed in student dorms while traditional students are away on summer vacation—and weekend activities throughout the year.
Most foster kids frequently move from home to home, and school to school. Even dedicated school counselors have difficulty making sure they have completed all their graduation requirements. As a result, many fall through the cracks.
While most teens continue to enjoy moral and financial support from their parents as they gradually learn to live on their own, foster youth are often unceremoniously dumped on the street when they age out of the foster care system at 21. (This used to happen at age 18, before the law changed in January 2012). SOAR for Youth is dedicated to helping foster youth make a successful transition to adulthood, by giving them the academic support to graduate from high school and the legal guidance they need to live on their own.
Since it began, 63 foster kids have attended SOAR academies.
Brown, the brain—and heart— behind it all, is a slight, youthful woman with short jet-black hair who’s coy about her age (she only admits to being over 45). She still speaks with a slight Chinese accent from her childhood in Taiwan, although Oakland has been her home for more than 15 years. She moved to America to study for graduate degrees in business administration and information systems and later worked as the director of Cal’s administrative systems department for 15 years, before leaving to head information systems and services at the lab.
In her spare time, she enjoys painting, gardening, and traveling, but she doesn’t have many free hours outside of volunteering full-time as SOAR for Youth president. She’s quiet when talking about her own accomplishments, preferring to dwell on the contributions of other volunteers.
Starting in 2005, Brown was hit by a series of deaths that took away some of the people closest to her. Brown’s father died in 2005, her mother the following year. And a year later, her beloved dog—her first and last—also died. Her losses were the catalyst she needed.
“It helped me realize that life is so short,” she says. “And I needed to do this sooner rather than later.”
But Brown was starting from scratch when it came to helping kids. She didn’t have children of her own, and, before learning about the plight of foster kids, had not worked with kids before—either in or out of foster care. She didn’t have any idea where to start.
“I didn’t know anything coming in,” Brown says. “So I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I was open to learning anything.”
She went to her connections at U.C. Berkeley, asking the professors at the graduate schools of education and social welfare for guidance and advice. She started to volunteer in the after-school art program at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley to learn how to interact with middle-school kids. She visited a San Jose soup kitchen, where she talked directly with homeless youth, asking them what they wanted, what they needed, and what, most importantly, could have been different. As a complete outsider, Brown knew that she had a lot to learn, and her openness to new ideas gradually won over her skeptics.
She first sought to establish a children’s center through U.C. Berkeley, but the 2008 budget crisis quashed that plan. Undaunted, she pushed ahead with an alternative scheme to set up SOAR for Youth as a nonprofit. When she first applied, she read on the state website that it could take up to six weeks to process an online application and by then it would be too late to get the academy running before summer.
Determined not to put SOAR on hold for another year, Brown jumped in her car and drove to Sacramento to turn in the application, hoping it would be fast-tracked for approval. Though the office was nearly empty when she arrived, and she feared the application would not be approved in time, an email approving SOAR was already in her inbox when she arrived home that night.
After that, Brown had only four months to get the first SOAR Academy together before summer. In summer 2009, the pilot program went off without a hitch with 10 students referred to SOAR by Child Support Services in San Francisco and Alameda counties.
SOAR starts reaching kids early so they can prepare for high school and college, and learn what classes are required to graduate. Even those who haven’t endured abuse or neglect have to contend with a childhood of being shuttled between homes. A big idea behind SOAR is to make the academy and the Berkeley campus a stable presence in kids’ lives.
“Most foster youth lack consistency in their lives,” says Brown. “They move from home to home. They don’t have people there caring for them. They don’t have people they can rely on or trust. U.C. Berkeley has been so supportive. Part of what makes SOAR so important is having a presence on the campus here. I want these kids to feel at home here, to know that they belong here just as much as any other student.”
SOAR’s faculty and counselors—a number of whom are former foster kids themselves—tutor students in math, science, and English, teach them their legal rights and about scholarships for college, and train them in basic life skills like balancing a checkbook, preparing for an interview, and resolving conflicts. Every year, child support services and Court Appointed Special Advocates, a nationally based organization that provides one-on-one advocacy for children who are dependents of juvenile court, refer kids who they believe would most benefit from SOAR.
“At first, my husband was very concerned about the impact of SOAR on our lives,” Brown says. “He didn’t want to have much to do with it. But he agreed to help with the summer academy setup and to pick up the kids and drive them to the academy. When he came in mid-week and at the end of the week to help out, he saw how the kids had grown each time and transformed. They were like completely different people because they had found a place to fit in. That made him change his mind. Now he spends all his free time outside of work supporting SOAR.”
After five years, some of SOAR’s earliest students are finally old enough to graduate from high school. Of the original 10 students, nine have decided to pursue college degrees.
Brown’s former jobs in information systems required a careful, analytical, and tactful approach to problems. Her management skills and dedication to detail have served her well as SOAR’s president. She spends her days juggling, all on a budget less than a fraction of what she used to manage at the lab. Gone are the days when she could rely on an assistant. Today, she tackles everything from administrative duties to developing the curriculum to even making lunch and picking up students at the BART station.
During the summer academy, she stays with the kids in the dorms, along with an overnight counselor who stays awake all night, keeping watch to make sure students are safe. (It’s a common tactic in group homes, she learned, where some kids dealing with trauma may be unable to sleep if they feel vulnerable.) Because much of SOAR’s success comes from its volunteers, Brown says, she is always looking for new people who want to make a difference.
“SOAR wouldn’t be the same without all these volunteers,” says Brown. “It’s wonderful that people have been so forthcoming. We rely on them. As SOAR grows, we need more people stepping forward with their time or their money to make a lifelong positive impact on the kids we serve.”
For info or to volunteer: (510) 632-0888 or soarforyouth.org.
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and a longtime contributor to The Monthly.
Photographer Margaretta K. Mitchell’s work will be exhibited in a retrospective at the Photo Gallery, 473 25th St., Oakland, April 26-June 1, with an opening reception Saturday, May 11 and a closing reception Saturday, June 1. For info: photogalleryoakland.com or margarettamitchell.com.