JBAY’s Newest Youth Advocate Uses Her Hardships to Help Others

“I know COVID is a big thing for everyone in the world but it’s one of the smaller things I’ve faced in my life,” says Rose Johnasen, reflecting on a young life filled with turmoil and tragedy but also with remarkable perseverance and progress. It’s a depth of experience that 20-year-old Rose is now bringing to her newest role as a JBAY Youth Advocate, working to ensure that other young people get more support than she did.

Rose’s parents had substance abuse problems and were in and out of prison. Rose was also abused emotionally and physically. She spent a lot of time in foster care, frequently moving to new homes with her sister who was five years younger. Several times Rose went back to her mother. Other times she was homeless.

“I was separated from everything and everyone I had become familiar with, on numerous occasions, so the only thing that was certain in my life was that everything was temporary,” recalls Rose. “I never knew what to expect. Living out of a bag and getting dropped off at different houses, starting at new schools, or not being able to go to school for weeks. I was constantly behind at school and felt unintelligent because of that. When I did go to school I was unfocused because I was more worried about things that kids shouldn’t have to worry about. I was pulled out of class numerous times by authorities and social workers. I lost confidence in myself and was confused and embarrassed. It was hard for me to relate to other kids my age.”

Rose became fiercely self-reliant, taking care of herself and her younger sister. When Rose’s older sister turned 18, she stepped in to become the legal guardian for ten-year-old Rose and her little sister. But when her sister started her own family, Rose was back out on her own at the age of 15, with no wish to go back into foster care.

Along with her self-reliance, Rose also did well academically, despite all the interruptions and what she describes as being “an angry kid” at school. She graduated high school at 15 and started college at 16. She recalls that “I had no-one to help and to show me how to do things and had no idea what I was doing.” At one point she was doing six college classes and four jobs at the same time. She faced new traumas: two of her brothers killed themselves, one on Christmas Day, and she lost her home and belongings in the Paradise Camp Fire.

Again, Rose persevered and prevailed. She is now at Humboldt State working on her BS in environmental science, with plans to pursue a career in ecological restoration. She is also JBAY’s newest Youth Advocate, working alongside five other youth who have experienced foster care or homelessness.

Among the issues that Rose is working on with JBAY is Senate Bill 228, which will expand eligibility for Next Up, a program that provides a wide array of financial and practical benefits to former foster youth enrolled in college. To qualify for NextUp, youth must have been in foster care on or after their 16th birthday. SB 228, introduced by Senator Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino) and sponsored by JBAY, would expand the qualification age to 13 and above. That change would benefit students like Rose, who left the foster care system to live independently just before she turned 16.

“I barely missed the marker and that really sucked because that much support would have helped tremendously,” said Rose. “Having to worry about rent and a place to live and how to make money is a huge issue that really takes away from everything else in your life. I’m really honored to have the opportunity to pave the path for kids who are in a similar situation to me. It feels very gratifying to help others in need, especially those who are facing similar hardships and obstacles. I know what could be done differently and what resources could have benefited me and that is very useful when trying to help others in similar situations.”

JBAY Gears Up for Ambitious and Challenging Year of Policy Change

It’s Thanksgiving week, but at John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), we are already busy thinking about the New Year, when the California State Legislature will return and we can get back to the important work of improving policies for youth who have been homeless or in foster care. In 2021, we’ll be focusing on our three main issues: housing, education and health.

In housing, we’ll be fighting to maintain funding for youth who become homeless after exiting foster care by sustaining the Transitional Housing Program. The program is currently scheduled to end in December 2021, despite its effectiveness and the tremendous need for it: a recent study of former foster youth in California found that over a thousand youth are homeless and waiting for housing.

In education, JBAY will be focused on ensuring the most vulnerable young adults succeed in higher education, which is a critical path to long-term economic security. First, we are proposing to expand access to NextUp, a student support program at 45 community colleges. The program is highly effective, but its reach is limited to a narrow subset of foster youth. We’ll work to modify the eligibility to make an estimated 1,000 additional young people able to receive the support they need.

Also in education, JBAY will assist the tens of thousands of college students struggling with homelessness and food insecurity by advocating for the creation of basic needs centers across the state. These “one-stop-shops” offer students food, housing referrals, help with financial aid and more. The data show that helping students with these traditionally non-academic needs is critical if we want them to maintain enrollment and graduate.

Finally, in health, we will work to ensure youth in foster care have access to reproductive and sexual health services.

Pressing for these kinds of changes is never easy and it certainly won’t be in 2021, with the uncertainty of the pandemic and the related economic impact on the state budget. But we know that young people need us more than ever. Unlike most youth and young adults, those who have been homeless or in foster care don’t have the benefit of parents or an extended family to assist them during this challenging time. Thank you to JBAY supporters who make this work possible. Next stop: Sacramento!