CORONA, Calif. When a prisoner is paroled, the state gives him $200 and a bus ticket. When foster care children age out of the system on their 18th birthday or on the day they graduate from high school, they're on their own and must immediately fend for themselves.
After hearing her husband, Dave, a Riverside social worker, tell stories of former foster kids struggling to survive, Corona resident Kristi Camplin knew something needed to be done.
"There were programs for pregnant teenagers and kids on drugs, but there was nothing for the regular kid who wasn't in trouble," Camplin said. "When my youngest child started school full time, I thought I could start small and mentor a few girls. We hosted a bunco night and used the money to start Inspire Lifeskills."
The unique Inland Empire program, which started in October 2005 with four girls, has grown to 14 and now serves both boys and girls. In addition to mentoring, the program helps former foster youth find affordable housing and part-time employment, assists them in enrolling in full-time college or vocational training, and provides access to professional counseling and medical care.
Camplin stresses that the answer isn't just giving them money.
"They need to be surrounded with support," the ministry leader said.
And she feels blessed to have found people in the community willing to help. Individuals have stepped forward to mentor participants, and churches and service clubs have donated money and store gift cards to use as incentives. California Baptist University and The Grove church in Riverside provide professional Christian counseling.
One couple came forward with an extremely generous contribution.
"They told me that the Lord had called them to buy a home for us to use," Camplin said. "That allowed us to double the number of kids we could help almost overnight."
Yet Camplin, who attends Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, would love to see church support for the program grow.
"I see this as a local mission," she said. "It's great to have global missions. But we also need to look in our own backyard and see how we can help. The church should stand up and do something as a local outreach. A lot of these kids have never been exposed to church or God."
And, although the program is secular, it is staffed entirely by Christians and permeated with prayer.
"The kids know the program is run by Christians but they're not required to go to church or Bible study," she said. "These kids don't need another thing to rebel against."
Camplin's gentle witness has produced results. In the few years since the program's inception, many of the young people have become Christians.
"They see the love of Christ through our volunteers," Camplin said. "They know that the staff is praying for them but we don't push it. It seems to really work with these kids."
Francelia Segura was one of the first to be accepted into the program. Statistics show that as a veteran of the foster care system she is one of the very few who will ever attend college, thanks to Inspire Lifeskills.
Although not a Christian when she entered the program, Segura now teaches Sunday school at the Spanish Assembly of God in Homeland, thanks to the prayers and godly example of Camplin and other Lifeskills staff and volunteers.
With 51 college units already under her belt, the Riverside Community College student is well on her way to earning her California teaching credential and is already working in her chosen field as a preschool teacher. And, like everyone else in the program, she meets regularly with a mentor.
"She encourages me," Segura said of her mentor. "She's a teacher, too, and helps me with my classes. We go out once a month and talk about my goals."
Education is a foundational pillar of the program.
"Our self-sufficiency program is designed to teach them to break the cycle of abuse," Camplin said. "Our goal is that when (people) leaves our program, they are not on public assistance and that they'll be self-sufficient from that day.
Each participant is required to attend school full time. And these kids aren't studying basket weaving. Their academic programs range from electronics and pediatric dentistry to psychology. The students are scattered throughout Inland Empire college campuses including California State University San Bernardino; California State University Fullerton; Riverside Community College and Santa Ana College.
In addition to their formal education, each participant is required to attend bimonthly life skills training classes. Volunteer speakers teach the students health education, budgeting, résumé writing, interviewing skills, time management, conflict resolution, sewing and even how to barbecue safely.
Like many nonprofit organizations, Inspire Lifeskills generates most of its income from fundraisers. One of the largest, the annual Inspire Invitational golf tournament, will be held June 16 at the private Vellano Country Club in Chino Hills. Last year more than 100 golfers participated.
The tournament not only brings in needed funds for the program, but it also demonstrates the community's commitment to the former foster children.
"The kids see the support of Christians at the fundraisers," Camplin said. "It's a real witness to them."
As more children within the foster care system hear about Inspire Lifeskills, Camplin said she hopes that they will be inspired to try harder in high school. Yet, when selecting an applicant for her program, she looks for motivation more than at their transcripts.
"The resilience of these kids is amazing," she said. "I look for that internal fire to keep going in spite of their hardships."
In the future, Camplin hopes to be able to fund homes in the Murrieta/Temecula area and raise money to hire additional staff so that more time can be spent with each participant. She is also hoping that ministry graduates return to give back as mentors.
Camplin's vision to enable former foster children to follow their dreams is slowly coming true.
"If we don't help these kids now, society is going to pay for them forever," she said. "Chances are they'll end up on welfare, the girls will get pregnant and the boys will end up in prison. And the risk is very high for them to be abusive and neglectful to their own children. The cycle just continues."
For more information, visit www.inspirelifeskills.org.