Group of students gathered around a big tree

By App or By Internship

Grad’s Nonprofit Finds Creative Ways to Help Current and Former Foster Youth

Some people come to grad school to try to find their path; others already know where they’re going and use their program to help them get there. But it’s the rare student who enters a program with the specific intention to build a brand new nonprofit.

That’s what Beth Ryan ’17 (Antioch Los Angeles, MA in Applied Community Psychology) did, though. She used her graduate studies as the springboard from which to launch Stepping Forward Los Angeles (SFLA), a nonprofit that works to meet the needs of foster youth in LA who are nearing or have recently passed that critical age—eighteen—when the foster care system abruptly ceases caring for them. Since Ryan started the nonprofit right around when she graduated, SFLA has served over 800 current and former foster youth from its headquarters in South Los Angeles.

But Ryan has even bigger aspirations than offering services to hundreds of current and former foster youth from a single office. She wants to reach and help these youth regardless of location or (in the COVID era) social distancing requirements. That’s why this fall SFLA is launching a new app called, simply, Stepping Forward.

“We’ve designed an app, literally by foster youth, for foster youth,” explains Ryan. The genesis came during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when social distancing required many in-person activities to cease. SFLA has always run its many programs and events with a staff of six former foster youth and seasonal teams of paid interns—also entirely composed of recent foster youth. When the pandemic forced things to close, Ryan thought, “Well, I have this staff—I don’t want to let anyone go.” Instead of treading water, she asked, “How can we use this time to really create something that is sustainable, that is going to make a huge impact?”

The answer that SFLA came upon was to create a smartphone app that would connect foster youth to each other, to content, and to resources: Stepping Forward. Over the last year, Ryan has brought in 3 rounds of interns—30 in total—to create much of the app’s content, to design its look and feel, and to influence every decision in how it was made.

The results are spectacular: Stepping Forward features over 2,000 short videos covering a vast range of subjects, ranging from “High School – Surviving Drama, Grades, Boys, and More!” and “Understanding Credit: An Online Training for Youth in Foster Care” to “US Citizenship Interview Practice” and “Therapy with a Former Foster Child.” Many of the videos were created by SFLA’s interns, while others were located and curated by them. Says Ryan, “It’s all stuff that they wanted to learn or that they had to learn the hard way.”

Another section of the app includes a social network where users can join affinity groups, ask each other questions, mentor each other, and strike up friendships. Foster youth will be able to accumulate publicly visible badges (designed by interns) celebrating their achievements small and large: getting an A, going to prom, cooking a recipe, choosing a major in college, or joining a club. And there will be weekly events offered through the app, too: Monday mindfulness meditations, Wednesday workshops, Friday fun at five, and more.

With this app, Ryan hopes that more foster youth will be able to connect with resources, with opportunities, and in community with each other. But first, she has to launch it. Currently, a final round of 20 interns—all former foster youth—are stress-testing the app in every dimension and trying to make sure it’s ready for wider distribution. The current plan is for a launch before the end of the year.

In many ways, Stepping Forward Los Angeles has Antioch in its DNA. Ryan designed much of SFLA while in the MA in Psychology program, which she attended after meeting and being inspired by Sylvie Taylor, the founder and director of the degree’s Applied Community Psychology concentration. Last year Ryan nominated Taylor for the prestigious, national Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award, which she ended up winning. Ryan keeps Antioch close, in part by welcoming current graduate students to serve in internships at SFLA—she’s hosted fifteen just in the last year. In this, as with the app and SFLA’s in-person events, Ryan is bringing people together to help each other grow. “I kind of look at Stepping Forward LA as—not a teaching hospital,” she says, “but a teaching nonprofit.”