[Hpn] SFGate: The Jefferson Award: Arlene Hylton, foster child advocate

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Sat, 29 Jan 2005 06:54 -0800

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Saturday, January 29, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
The Jefferson Award: Arlene Hylton, foster child advocate
Suzanne Pullen, Chronicle Staff Writer

   Each week, The Chronicle features a Bay Area resident who has won a
Jefferson Award for making a difference in his or her community. The
awards are administered by the American Institute for Public Service, a
national foundation established in 1972 to honor community service. Bay
Area residents profiled in The Chronicle will also be featured on CBS5-TV
and KCBS-AM, which -- along with The Chronicle -- are Jefferson Award
media partners..
   Jefferson Award winner: Arlene Hylton, program coordinator for the San
Francisco Department of Human Services' Independent Living Skills Program.
   How she started: The San Francisco Independent Living Skills Program began
in 1987 to help 16- to 18-year-old foster children get job training. When
it branched into steering foster teens toward college in 1991, Hylton
became the new program's first counselor. In her first year, she helped
get 30 students into college.
   And now: Today, Hylton is the coordinator of the Independent Living Skills
Program, which serves current and former foster children, as well as those
on probation and in the mental-health system. The program provides
tutoring and mentorship, as well as field trips and workshops on housing,
personal growth, racism, communication and relationships. The Teen Center,
where youths can consult with staff and access computers, is open weekdays
from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The College Club helps students register for SATs,
apply for financial aid and fill out college admissions applications.
Workshops, college tours and individualized counseling are also offered.
The Independent Living Skills Program has more than 1,500 members; 120 are
in college and are supported by the program.
   Her inspiration: She first came to the United States from Jamaica on
vacation and then stayed on, working as a bartender. But she wasn't happy
and kept asking herself, "Why am I still in this country?" A friend
noticed she always seemed to be caring for someone's child and encouraged
her to apply for a job at the Nelson Walker group home. She wound up
working full time as a counselor, and through that job discovered her
purpose for staying in the United States.
   Her vitals: She is 59 and commutes to San Francisco daily from Fairfield.
She has a degree in sociology and became a permanent resident of the
United States in the 1980s. She is single ("The kids would be too
jealous," she jokes) and has no children of her own; she says she
considers the kids she works with her children.
   Who made the biggest impact on her: A young girl named Myeshia Grice, who
was living with an aunt when Hylton met her. Grice was shy, had poor
grades and was reluctant to get involved in the program. Her family had a
history of drug abuse, and Hylton said no one really encouraged her.
Grice's only goal: to make it to adulthood. Hylton said that Grice became
like her own daughter. When Hylton was hospitalized for a week after a
surgical procedure, every time she opened her eyes, young Grice was there.
"It took her years to tell me," said Hylton, "but she rushed over after
school every day to make sure I was still alive." Grice, now 30, is
studying for a master's degree in social work and is working at California
Youth Connection, an organization that encourages foster youth to work for
change in the state's foster-care system.
   In her own words: "You can't help but want to put your best foot forward
for these kids. I think they bring out the best in me. At first, as a
supervisor, I thought I wasn't supposed to be so fun and easygoing,
because I saw others being harsh. They said not to give so much. But one
department director told me to just be Arlene. Boy, is he sorry now! And
the kids know: Do your business, but we can have fun, too. I believe that
no matter what is going on around you, no matter how rough things are in
your life, it is OK to make a mistake, because it really is just a
   What others say about her: "She didn't allow me to make excuses with my
life," said Grice. "She encouraged me to become a better person. She was
that one person I could talk to who wouldn't judge me, but who asked me a
whole lot of questions so I could figure things out on my own. Without
her, maybe I would have been a statistic -- homeless or dependent on
assistance, or it would have taken a whole lot longer for me to grow up
and take control of my life."
   To find out more: Call (415) 934-4202 or visit www.sfilsp.org.
   To win a Jefferson Award: Do you know someone who deserves to be honored
for serving his or her community? Go to www.sfgate.com/ jeffersonawards ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle