As a child, Jayla Lackaff would often escape to the expansive worlds within her favorite video games to get away from her turbulent reality — the computer screen a wall separating her from the clashes between her mom and stepdad, who were often arguing around her, if not about her.
“I was the scapegoat for a lot of things,” Lackaff said.
She had no idea at the time that video games would later offer an oasis after she ended up in foster care, or that they would turn into a professional pursuit as she pieced her adult life together with the help of First Place for Youth, a nonprofit based in Oakland that provides housing and case management for people transitioning out of the foster care system and into adulthood.
When her parents’ relationship faltered, Lackaff wound end up living elsewhere. Halfway through her freshman year of high school, her mom sent her from their home in San Francisco to live with her aunt in Oregon. When she came back sophomore year, it wasn’t long before her mom was asking if she could stay with school friends for a while. So Lackaff began couch surfing.
“At the time, I didn’t realize this was a big deal,” she said. During therapy one day, she opened up about her situation. The therapist told her he was obligated to report what was happening.
Lackaff ended up in state custody. She spent her teens in different foster homes around the city. Once, after she had been assigned to a group home in Sacramento, far from her life and friends, Lackaff ran away. Amid the constant moves, a high school diploma was never her priority — by junior year, she had dropped out. It would be a few years before she completed her GED.
After aging out of the system in 2019 at age 18, Lackaff began to receive state aid in the amount of $1,060 a month, but the cash was about all that the program provided: She had no case supervisor, no one to help her with her transition out of the system, no one on her team.
She started working 35 hours a week at Starbucks, and moved in with her boyfriend to save money on rent. Even after they broke up, the pair continued to live together — Lackaff didn’t have the funds to strike out her own.
A way out came via her former social worker. He offered to put her in touch with First Place for Youth, which provides housing through its “My First Place” program.
The nonprofit hopes to raise $20,000 through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which highlights organizations that offer services to help people improve their lives. The funds can help First Place for Youth provide foster youth like Lackaff with housing and other support so they can focus on building the skills they need to transition into adulthood.
This past January, the organization found an Alameda apartment for Lackaff, now 22. She lives with a roommate who also recently transitioned out of foster care.
In addition to free housing, Lackaff has a career counselor, who encouraged her to continue her studies. So when she came across a program in video game design, she felt like she could envision a career for herself.
“It’s the perfect blend of a profitable skill that will support me and something that will make me feel fulfilled,” Lackaff said.
Carmen Gomez, Lackaff’s supervisor at First Place for Youth, says that by providing additional resources beyond housing, the organization can help its program participants chart out their own path.
“At times, when you take on those next steps by yourself, it can be overwhelming,” said Gomez, who participated in the My First Place program herself in 2009. “But when you have a support system, when you have people who know what you need to be successful, it’s like a weight is lifted off of you.”
Last semester, Lackaff enrolled in general education classes at College of Alameda, a short walk from her apartment. In a few years, she hopes to transfer to UC Santa Cruz.
Without the housing provided by the nonprofit, Lackaff isn’t sure she would be on the path toward a degree.
“Going to school and working was not really feasible,” she said. “Moving here has given me stability… now I get to think about: What are the things that I want to improve? What are things that I just want to do?”
The program has had proven success helping foster youth achieve stable housing. While 40% of the nation’s former foster youth experienced homelessness by age 24, according to First Place for Youth statistics, 92% of youth graduating from the program achieved stable housing by the end. Likewise, 83% of program participants attended post-secondary education while in the program, compared to just 20% of foster youth.
After years on the move, Lackaff is happy to have a stable space. Though First Place for Youth provided some of the initial furniture for the two-bedroom apartment, Lackaff used her spare money to set up her place just the way she likes it. Underneath her desk, she strung rainbow LED lights. She attached a TV monitor to a stand on wheels, so she can position it to play video games either from her bed or her recliner.
“It’s my bedroom,” Lackaff said. “I can do whatever I want.”
On a Monday evening earlier this fall, Lackaff was kicking back at the end of the day with Zelda and Minecraft, which she now uses to distract herself from her schoolwork, rather than a turbulent home life.
“Before, it was just kind of chaos all the time,” Lackaff said. “Now, I get to focus on myself.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help First Place for Youth provide housing, counseling, education and employment support to 140 young adults ages 18-25 in Contra Costa and Alameda counties who are transitioning from the foster care system. Goal: $20,000
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.