For Dennis Saenz, music is an escape from the troubling memories of his childhood.
At age 20, Saenz plays the viola, flute and piano. He performs in the American River College Vocal Jazz Ensemble while pursuing a degree in music.
His dream is to become a musical therapist and help those who have experienced significant life trauma. It’s a vision born out of his own troubled past and subsequent healing through music.
Five years ago, Saenz was swept from his father into the foster care system, where he was shifted between group homes and foster families. It was in these environments that he began to heal from the trauma of his childhood, but, even so, he found the tasks of daily living to be a challenge.
“To not have clothes or food readily available, or a loving parent there for me as a child – it wasn’t really fair, to be honest,” Saenz said. “Before being placed into the foster system, I couldn’t function on my own or in a family setting. It was that bad.”
That Saenz has made it this far is due to not only his own resilience and perseverance, but to the support of Aspiranet, a nonprofit group that provides services for current and former foster youths as they transition toward independence.
The organization’s Transitional Aged Youth program prepares clients for adulthood. As they approach emancipation from the foster care system and its accompanying services, the program offers clients transitional housing, as well as educational, professional and financial support.
Aspiranet clients enter the program from a full spectrum of trauma and neglect, said Maria Barron, program director. They come from a range of backgrounds, including foster families, group homes, juvenile hall and homelessness.
“We’re supporting kids with high-level needs,” Barron said. “Many of them don’t have any support and haven’t had the life-skills training that would prepare them to go out into the world. This program is the safety net between them turning 18 and going out on their own.”
On the first day each client is matched with a personal life coach who assists with day-to-day needs while encouraging clients toward their goals.
“We help them enroll in college, obtain a driver’s license, get a job, learn to cook and clean, maintain bills and budget,” said life coach Jalisa Mesfin. “These things sound really simple, but for our young adults, these are skills they don’t have a lot of the time.”
“We’re here to help them navigate a number of systems, like the DMV and Medi-Cal,” Barron said. “These are systems that are confusing and overwhelming even for us, let alone the foster youth we serve.”
Mesfin said she also works with clients to strengthen often-lacking communication and conflict-resolution skills.
“A lot of (clients) don’t realize how big communication is in the adult world,” she said. “They don’t know how to hold a conversation on the phone to pay their bills, for example. So, we work on those things.”
Although the Transitional Aged Youth program was founded just last year, Barron said she has witnessed “great strides and progress in a number of youth” who have moved through the program.
Book of Dreams readers have been asked to aid 16 foster youths by helping purchase bicycles, helmets and bike locks. In the absence of personal vehicles, bicycles would provide reliable transportation for commuting to and from work and school for the program’s clients.
“A lot of our kids rely on public transportation, but sometimes they miss the bus or it comes late,” said life coach Jackie Connelly. “Bikes would be a huge relief and convenience in getting them where they need to go.”
For Saenz, Aspiranet’s Transitional Age Youth program was a much-needed jump-start to his independence. Working alongside his life coach, he has gained employment at a local Starbucks, enrolled in college and began living in an apartment on his own – things he said he would have otherwise been too scared to do.
“Now, I actually know what I want,” Saenz said. “It’s one thing to have self-confidence and be comfortable with who you are; it’s another to entirely know what you want in life and to set out the path for yourself to attain it.”
Needed: Funds to purchase 16 bicycles, helmets and locks for Aspiranet’s Transitional Aged Youth program.
Here’s a list of wishes so far
Dream: Funds are sought to help pay for items for Melissa Oliver’s wedding. Oliver’s father, Danny, a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, was killed in the line of duty in October 2014.
Needed: Wedding dress, groom suit and cake
Dream: Next Move’s Family Shelter seeks funds to supply clothing to comfort homeless children.
Needed: Pajamas, socks and underwear
Dream: My Sister’s Café, a branch of the nonprofit My Sister’s House, needs work apparel for its workers.
Needed: New aprons and uniform T-shirts
Dream: Funding for blanket-making equipment for the Elk Grove-based Gramma’s Hugs Factory
Needed: Three special sewing machines
Dream: Funds to purchase supplies for cognitive stimulation activities for adults with disabilities served by nonprofit Health for All
Needed: Art and music supplies, including a karaoke machine
Dream: Funds for a Rifton Pacer Gait Trainer for United Cerebral Palsy of Sacramento and Northern California.
Needed: The device helps people with disabilities gain more mobility
Dream: Southside Art Center seeks money to purchase equipment and attire for employees in its recycling center program
Needed: Steel-toed boots, shirts and gloves
Dream: My Mother’s Voice seeks funds to purchase necessities for Blairmarie Martin’s family.
Needed: Beds, mattresses, sheets, pillows
Dream: Harmony House in Auburn asks for money to purchase gardening supplies for Placer County adults with a range of chronic mental illnesses.
Needed: Planter boxes, soil and irrigation supplies.