ESCONDIDO, Calif. (KGTV) — Growing up in foster care can be lonely enough and the holidays and the pandemic can make life feel even more isolating.
Shatayja Beck knows that feeling all too well.
"I didn't know where I was going to go. I thought I was going to be there forever, and then finally somebody told me about SPA, and it just sounded like the best place, really I was like sign me up," said Beck.
SPA is the San Pasqual Academy in Escondido. Roughly seventy kids live, study, play sports, and grow up on the sprawling campus.
"San Pasqual Academy is a first in the nation residential, educational setting for children in foster care, and it has been for ages 12 and up," said Kimberly Giardina, Director of Child Welfare Services for the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency.
Shatayja's mom died suddenly when she was just eight years old. She was in and out of the Polinsky Childrens Center and foster homes before finding stability at SPA.
"SPA was the best thing for me because I was older and nobody really wanted to take me in, and I wasn't going back with my family," said Shatayja.
Shatayja lived in the honor's house and played just about every sport offered. She graduated from SPA in 2017.
"When I was younger, I didn't even think I was really going to make it to college, I was like high school and, that's it," said Shatayja.
Not only did she graduate high school, but she says she also had several college scholarship options. Currently, she's a student at Grossmont College. Her passion is photography and she works as a security guard.
"When I went to SPA, I felt like I could be myself, and I found out who I really was, how I wanted to dress. and how I wanted to be," said Shatayja.
Perhaps, just as frightening as entering the foster system is leaving it.
"There is the experience of, 'good luck, you've turned 18.' The system is no longer responsible. We hope that you learn everything that you've needed to to make this transition successful," said Simone Hidds-Monroe.
Hidds-Monroe knows that feeling all too well. She graduated from SPA in 2009.
She and her three siblings entered foster care after their mom died. They stayed together, and all graduated from the academy.
"There is such a relief when you meet another former foster youth. It's like this unspoken connection that you really understand," said Hidds-Monroe, who is now the associate director of youth services for Just in Time for Foster Youth.
The organization serves more than 800 youth a year, ages 18-26. The goal is to help them succeed once they age out of the foster care system.
"The biggest thing for us is connections. We want our youth to know there is a community here to support them, for every goal and every opportunity they want to have, we're cheering for them," said Hidds-Monroe.
Making those connections can be more challenging during the pandemic.
The group recently held two holiday drive-thru events, where youth picked up gifts, food, school supplies, or home furnishings.
"We're really asking the community to step forward and help us bring the holiday joy and some gifts and love to our youth at this time," said Hidds-Monroe.
Giardina says when the pandemic first hit, the county saw a decrease in people willing to become foster parents, but offering virtual training and education has made it easier for people to help.
"The pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, and kids in foster care have already come from traumatic experiences and already have had a difficult time," said Giardina.
Hidds-Monroe says she's dedicated to making sure the youth succeed.
"I'm an ally for my peers, and I am very passionate for my youth in foster care to make sure they have a positive experience. We can always do better, and I want to be a part of that better, I want to be part of that opportunity," said Hidds-Monroe.
If you'd like to donate to one of the organizations supporting the county's roughly 2,400 youth in foster care, you'll find more information here.