Most of us remember the feeling of independence that arrived the day we went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and got our first driver’s license. It’s a rite of passage for teens everywhere, especially in car-centric California.
However, getting that independence can be challenging for teens in foster care. Many don’t have the cash to pay for driving lessons or a car they can depend on for the behind-the-wheel test. Because of those challenges, fewer than 5% of teens in foster care obtain a license while in foster care.
The Leela Project, a non-profit organization supporting underrepresented youth, is setting out to change that. The Drive to Empower program, working collaboratively with Blue Shield of California, provides mentoring and tools to pave the way for foster teens to get a license. Blue Shield provided financial support for the pilot program, part of its ongoing relationship with the Leela Project that began in 2021.
“The program helps these teens overcome the hurdles to a license by covering the costs for behindthewheel training, along with tutoring and practice exams, and providing vehicles for behind-the-wheel tests,” said Alejandro Barajas, community engagement manager for Blue Shield Promise.
Drive to Empower is about more than the license itself, but what it represents: the ability to get to a doctor’s appointment, take classes at a college or trade school after high school, or enable them to get employment. Teens who want to participate in the program must also maintain good grades. A driver’s license provides the ability to manage health, school, and work needs, and can lead to improved well-being for foster teens old enough for a driver’s license and those approaching 18 when many of them will “age out” of the foster care system.
“Drive to Empower will help foster teens create better mental health practices through the independence they gain from having a driver’s license,” said Samantha Baretto, a Leela Project board member.
“About 30 teens are participating in the initial phase of this program,” said Barajas. “There’s a lot of passion at the Leela Project, in all the great things they do,” he said. “And to see the excitement in the kids’ faces, their expressions transitioned into hope and opportunity! It’s something you don’t know how important it is until you see it.”
Jonathan Ruiz, one of the first teens to take advantage of the program, says having a license has given him a sense of freedom and the reassurance that he can do things like see a doctor or his family – and get his dream career on track.
“A goal of mine was always to be able to go to school for welding,” said Ruiz. “Now that I have my license, I’m able to do that.” Ruiz said he’s grateful for the program and the support of Blue Shield, not just for himself but for all the other foster teens around him.
“Big shout out to Blue Shield for the opportunity you’re giving these foster teens,” he said. “For myself, I’m thankful and excited for the opportunity for these foster kids."