Unsung Santa Cruz: An advocate and listener for young adults in the foster youth system
As a program manager for a residential treatment program, April Pao provides support to case managers and the young adults they serve. The young adults have aged out of the foster care system but still seek guidance on how to live independently.
In Santa Cruz County, there are about 250 children and youth who need foster and adoptive parents at any given time, according to the county’s human services department.
A much smaller number of foster youth, who have aged out of the foster care system when they turned 18 but still seek supportive guardians and counseling, opt into a program that provides housing and guidance as they develop important life skills.
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One of the key leaders in helping ensure those youth learn how to open a bank account, buy groceries and live healthy, independent lives is April Pao.
As program manager for the Supporting Transitional Aged Youth program, known as STAY, at Haven of Hope, she oversees five case managers who provide guidance to up to a total of 15 young adults at any time.
“One of the best parts of the job is just getting to go on walks with the kids, and spending time outside of talking about things like what their goals are for the week,” she said, adding that she learns so much from her time with the youth they serve.
Haven of Hope, which was founded in 1998, offers short-term residential treatment for foster youth between the ages of 12 to 21 in Santa Cruz County. While Pao sometimes provides support for the programs helping the younger groups, her job is primarily working in the STAY program for young adults between the ages of 18 to 21. The STAY program offers two homes for young adults — one in Aptos and another in Capitola.
Shelly Logan, a case manager who has worked with Pao for about five years, said she has a way of making people around her feel better.
“She’s so personable, and really genuinely cares about every person she interacts with,” she said.
One of the best parts of the job is just getting to go on walks with the kids, and spending time outside of talking about things like what their goals are for the week.
— April Pao
Pao, 38, was raised in Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties and lives with her husband and three kids in Scotts Valley. She studied sociology at Bethany University and later worked for a private adoption agency and the victim-witness department at the County of Santa Cruz.
While she has years of professional experience serving this population, she also comes from a family that has provided homes for foster youth for generations.
Her grandparents had over 500 foster children, and her parents raised foster kids throughout her childhood as well. When Pao was in high school, a social worker her family worked with allowed her to ride along in the car with her to observe her work with foster youth.
Foster youth, Pao said, often move from home to home, and because of that they are constantly having to focus on basic needs and struggle to develop deeper connections with guardians. In these scenarios, they sometimes aren’t given the opportunities to learn the social, emotional and technical skills to live independently.
In some difficult cases, a youth could develop coping habits that include consuming drugs and alcohol. Because the Haven of Hope STAY program is a sober-living environment, Pao said the program has had to make tough decisions to remove youth who aren’t able to follow the requirements.
However, Logan said Pao is the person she calls to problem-solve when something goes wrong.
“We have a lot of trauma with this job,” Logan said of Pao. “She handles it with grace and stays calm and level-headed throughout it all.”
Les Forster, who met Pao through his advocacy work with foster youth, said Pao is diligent and present for the young adults. Forster has been an advocate for five years at CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates.
“She is absolutely and ultimately committed,” he said. “She comes from a place of just wanting the best for all of them.”
She is absolutely and ultimately committed. She comes from a place of just wanting the best for all of them.
— Les Forster
Forster said he often participates in team meetings for the youth involving CASA advocates like him, a Haven of Hope staff member or Pao, a social worker, sometimes a counselor or a probation officer, and the young adult.
“We have these periodic meetings, with everybody trying to put their heads together and really try to align to offer wraparound services so this person has all the advantages that we can make available to them,” he said. “But April oftentimes steers these meetings, and she comes from a place of just wanting the best for all of them.”
Pao sees a lot of hurt and sadness in the world, but says that as long as she can provide a supportive presence in someone’s life, that means something.
“I feel like, with my faith, I have hope, and so I feel like giving that to people in minor ways, like just by being there for them is a way to give that,” she said. “Everyone’s experience is so different. But I think at the end of the day, everybody’s looking for comfort and looking for help. So for me, that’s what drives me.”