Tayonna Gault has a plan.
The 22-year-old recently signed a lease on her first apartment. She just started teaching at a preschool in Belltown. And now, she wants to buy her first car before enrolling in beauty school and starting a cosmetology business.
The only hurdle?
“It’s hard without someone in your corner,” Gault said at a coffee shop near her home recently, exhausted after a two-hour bus ride that capped a daylong training for her new job.
An alumna of the foster care system, Gault can’t rely on the network of family and friends that most young adults can tap to afford a deposit for housing, make a down payment on a car or navigate the rules and requirements around starting a business. That’s why she keeps Lauren Ross on speed dial.
For the past several months, Ross has worked as Gault’s personal coach through Treehouse, one of 12 nonprofits that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For the Needy. The Seattle-based organization supports children through foster care and to their high school graduation, but realized a diploma doesn’t suddenly make life easier.
That’s why, last year, Treehouse began the Launch Success program, which pairs each graduate with a one-on-one coach like Ross to continue supporting them as they look for stable housing, pursue a degree or college credential and work toward a living wage.
“Nobody’s giving you a manual on how to ‘adult,'” said Ross. “And no one comes out of the womb wanting to work in a spreadsheet to budget their finances. We all need help learning how to do these things.”
Each young person entirely drives the coaching through Launch Success: Gault can ask for as much — or as little — as she needs from Ross.
Across the state, nearly 9,000 children up to age 17 are in foster care or another living arrangement after they were removed from their homes. That’s up 21% from a low of about 7,400 children in 2012, according to annual counts from the Center for Social Sector Analytics & Technology.
In 1988, a group of social workers founded Treehouse to better support youth in foster care, getting off the ground with bake sales and car washes to purchase birthday presents and school supplies. The organization has since grown to a staff of 145 and network of 3,000 volunteers, many of whom help run a completely free store filled with donated clothing, toys, school supplies and other essentials.
Treehouse focuses much of its work in education through its Graduation Success program, which during the 2018-19 academic year supported 1,175 youth in middle and high school in nine counties. The program, which Treehouse plans to expand statewide by 2022, boosted on-time graduation rates for the foster kids it serves to 69%. (At the state level, less than half of students in foster care graduated from high school in four years, compared to an average of about 81% for all students in Washington.)
Now, with Launch Success, Treehouse is continuing its one-on-one support after graduation. Ross, for example, helped Gault research what kind of business license she would need for her future makeup line, and the pair then filed for a sole proprietorship. And Gault even asked if Ross could help her buy a car.
While Ross couldn’t deliver on that request, she did help Gault draw up a list of goals — getting her driver’s license, looking into insurance and car loans, saving some of her own money — that as she checks off each one will come with small stipends to chip away at the larger purchase.
The pair started brainstorming where Gault can join community events to showcase her beauty skills, and find future clients.
But not all young people in Launch Success feel as comfortable with that level of assistance.
“Maybe they’re wary of me being involved in their life,” Ross said, “or maybe they want a break from services they relate to the — sometimes painful — foster care system.”
Alex Cornell agreed.
She’s also a coach with Launch Success but knows firsthand what it’s like to go through foster care.
“You don’t want to ask anyone for anything because you don’t want to be disappointed,” said Cornell, who moved 17 times while growing up in the system.
She also recalled how difficult it was transitioning into adulthood without a support system in place.
“If you don’t have quote, unquote parents — man, your 20s can be terrible,” Cornell said. “Say you’re a traditional student. Mom and Dad will help you find housing. They’ll teach you how to get your heat and electricity set up … We want to show these young people how to figure that all out.”
Aside from the coaches, Launch Success also offers financial and material resources.
Cornell, for example, recently helped a participant purchase a specific pair of khakis and a red shirt to start working at Target.
“That’s what your parents would typically help with,” she said.
Other participants have requested gift cards to pay for cleaning supplies, bed sheets and toiletries for a new apartment. Another enrolled in Seattle University, but couldn’t afford a soldering kit for engineering classes.
“We’re able to cover those unexpected costs that most of us just consider basic things,” Cornell said.
For now, Gault intends to focus on her new job. But she’s already identified the beauty school she wants to attend — Tint, in downtown Seattle — and knows Ross can help when she’s more comfortable with enrolling.
Launch Success will offer her a coach until she turns 26, although by then she plans to boost her credit score. And she has already picked a name for her future business: Jaseree Cosmetics, in honor of the brother she lost three years ago.
“One of the last conversations I had with him … he asked how I can get on a better path,” Gault said. “It took me a while, but he’d be really proud of this business.”
She credits her brother, and God, for inspiring the strength she needs to succeed.
“I want people to know I’ve overcome domestic violence, being a child in the system, being a woman of color with all the odds against me,” Gault said. “I’m a generational curse-breaker.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Tayonna Gault’s name.