A store like no other
ILP Store gives jobs to foster kids, goods to people in need
A couple of years ago Tami Thompson was sitting in her office looking up at the mountains of donated clothes, furniture and household goods that lined her office walls and were stacked in the hallway. The items, destined for foster kids aging out of foster care, didn’t fit into their already-stuffed storage unit.
As she explained in a recent interview, her first thought was that “there has to be a better way to distribute this stuff where other people could use it and have access to it too.”
Thompson is the coordinator of Independent Living Programs (ILP), a division of Northern California Youth and Family Programs, a nonprofit that provides a range of services to foster children and parents. ILP is charged specifically with teaching life skills to foster kids about to age out of the foster-care system.
Currently kids in foster care in California stop receiving aid when they reach the age of 18 or when they graduate from high school. While a bill currently in the state Assembly would raise the age of emancipation for foster kids from 18 to 21, the fact is that most foster kids are not prepared to go it alone once they leave foster care.
“It is pretty unfair to expect foster kids to be on their own at 18,” says Thompson. “The average age of self-sufficiency [in the general population] is 26 or 27.”
The statistics are chilling: Thirty percent of people who are homeless spent time in foster care, while 80 percent of those incarcerated are former foster kids.
Foster kids enter the ILP at age 16 and stay with the program until they are 21. The ILP tries to supply the support and training that is missing for the kids and teaches them how to live on their own.
When Thompson began figuring out a better way to distribute all those donated goods, she came up with an approach that also provides real work experience to her foster kids.
It’s called The ILP Store, and it’s fair to say there’s no other store quite like it.
The store, which is located on Morrow Lane in southeast Chico, is nestled between a flooring store and a vacant unit in a metal-sided building typical of the semi-industrial neighborhood south of the Skyway. The small retail space up front displays numerous racks of clothes, and shelves along the walls hold dishes, vases and other small household items. Several small pieces of furniture are ready to be selected for someone’s home.
The rear warehouse part of the store houses more clothes organized by season and stacked in plastic bins and on shelving donated by the Lowe’s Home Improvement store. A poster of a shirtless Johnny Depp adorns the refrigerator used by the store manager and the staff, which is largely composed of foster kids.
“I was worried about being able to get donations,” Thompson remembered. “But there are so many generous people in this community.”
Unlike other secondhand stores, The ILP Store does not accept money for the items it “sells.” Customers are given vouchers from one of many partnering agencies that send their donations to the store. These include the Jesus Center, the Torres Community Shelter, the Chico Unified School District, other foster-family agencies and many more groups, including the agencies that assisted victims from last year’s wildfires.
But more than just distributing goods to people who need them, The ILP Store provides a unique job-experience program for foster kids.
“In order to work there,” Thompson explained, “they have to fill out a job application. They have to interview. They are getting a bigger gift by learning a lot of little things, like turn off your cell phone when you are working; show up on time; figure out how to take the bus to work. Other employers won’t teach you that; they will just fire you.”
The store is managed by Josie Hall, who enjoys helping the customers as much as mentoring the foster kids.
“I love the store,” she said. “The rewarding part is when people find something they can use and they get excited. The kids feel good to be a part of that.”
A unique part of the program is that the foster kids get to give back to the community while they are learning life and job skills.
“When they are connected to their community they feel better about themselves,” Thompson said. “Foster kids don’t normally feel connected.”
Yolanda Knight, 23, an ILP graduate, now works there mentoring foster kids and helping them learn the skills she had to learn once she was out of foster care.
“I learned a lot at ILP,” she said. “I met monthly with my case worker and set goals. The program is very goal oriented. My case worker helped me get enrolled in college and find grants.”
Knight is attending Butte College and studying child development. “I love working at ILP. I plan to be a foster parent some day. I feel my experiences would be beneficial. I will be able to relate to the foster kids and help them out. I would like to repay the system.”