California Foster Youth and COVID Orphans Gaining a Sense of Hope from Trust Fund Program

Category: Listening Sessions, Personal Stories, Poverty News & Policy Updates, The Safety Net

April 26th, 2024

Celestina Ramirez is a senior at Options for Youth Public Charter School in Victorville, California. She is a member of the HOPE Accounts Youth Panel of Experts.

This article originally appeared in CalMatters.

Celestina Ramirez

Before I went into foster care, I always looked up to my biological mother. 

She was a woman of God, fierce, and taught me a key lesson: There is always hope. It’s a lesson that sustained me, still does, as I now prepare to enter college—something I never would have imagined possible just four years ago.

When I was 6-years-old my Dad was deported to Mexico. My mother had to care for me and my three siblings—all four of us were under age 8. We lived paycheck-to-paycheck while she worked jobs as a crossing guard before and after school and 9-hours per day at a Chinese fast food restaurant.  

Things took a turn for the worse when my mother got a new boyfriend and they began using. She stopped caring for us properly—we didn’t have much food, or clothes, and there was only a single bed with plastic sheets. We had to fend for ourselves in the house while they spent most of their time in the garage out back. It was difficult to function at school while worrying about what clothes were wearable or what we’d eat when we got home.

On September 11, 2019, when I was 13, my mother and her boyfriend had an argument that escalated into pushing, hitting, and physical harm to my 15-year-old sister. She ran away to get help. When the police arrived at 5 in the morning and saw the state of things, they arrested my mother, the boyfriend, and told us to grab whatever we could because we were going somewhere else.

We spent two days at Children and Family Services before we were separated into two foster homes. Me and my younger sister were placed with the foster family that I am still with today. Later, my younger brother joined us. 

It was hard at first, particularly because I had many biological family members but none could take me in. That hurt. And I had to adjust to new rules, and chores, a new family. But then I began to see that our old way of living was not a right way of living. And that here there was stability, safety, the opportunity to recover from trauma. Eventually I began to call my foster mother “Mom”—she now had that role in my life, helping me find the resources I needed to move forward. 

This spring I will graduate from high school early. I have a full scholarship to California State University, San Bernardino. I plan to study Business, and also English, because I love writing and the freedom of imagining stories. I am also benefitting from a new program California offers—HOPE Accounts for foster youth and children who lost a parent to COVID—a program more commonly known as “baby bonds.”

HOPE Accounts were signed into law in 2022. They are seeded by the state and invested on behalf of the recipients. For this program, approximately 58,500 children will receive access to $4500 at age 18 and the money will remain available until age 26. For me, the funds will help with transportation for college. Others might use it towards tuition, or an entrepreneurial idea, or some other wealth-building activity. The state is also engaging a “youth panel of experts,” including me, to help with program implementation, utilizing our expertise on issues like how to best reach young people? What kind of language do we connect with, or not connect with? We also have the opportunity to share our stories so that the public can better understand HOPE Accounts and why they matter. 

For me, there is an additional benefit in that the young people who are part of this group also form a kind of community. I know that I am not alone—that there are people I can trust, talk to, and they will understand my story. That’s something I really need. My desire is that this program will be successful and expanded so that all young people experiencing hardship will have resources to pursue their dreams like everyone else.

The place where I have lived the past four years is so beautiful. I love taking walks to be alone and to relax. The clouds are often low but I can see the silhouettes of the mountains. As my mind clears I know this to be true: It is hope that brought me here, and my next steps will be all mine.