San Diego nonprofit brings together former foster children and mentors

For 24-year-old Maria, pairing up with a mentor through Promises2Kids wasn't just meeting a requirement to receive a college scholarship. It was a chance to meet a woman who she would soon think of as a mother figure.

Maria, who lives in Oceanside and preferred not to disclose her last name, met Jeannine Watkins of Olivenhain three years ago after Maria was accepted for the Guardian Scholars scholarship through Promises2Kids, a San Diego-based nonprofit that offers support for current and former foster youth.

"I had applied for scholarships before and gotten money, but this one had a whole different area to it that I wasn't expecting to be very valuable to me," said Maria, who entered the foster care system when she was about 4 and became independent at the age of 17. "Being a foster kid, I knew how it was to receive a mentor but then I also know, working with foster youth, how they receive mentors as well. For me, it turned out to be the best thing."

Maria and Jeannine said it took them about six months before they really got to know each other and found out they could learn from one another.

While the scholarship only requires the two women to meet about once a month, the pair said they tend to meet weekly for dinners, coffee dates and other events.

"It doesn't even feel like a requirement anymore," Maria said. "It's just this relationship we have."

Watkins, a former stay-at-home mother, said she originally signed up to be a mentor after experiencing empty nest syndrome and a desire to help others.

She never pictured that Maria could also help her.

"Originally, I thought it was more me giving and me helping," Watkins said. "I also didn't realize how much she gives back to me. She's taught me a lot just in the way she lives her life and is able to go straight ahead with obstacles constantly jumping at her right and left. I just admire that so much."

Likewise, Maria said Watkins has taught her a "whole new kind of love" and thinks of her as the mother she never had.

Maria, a senior at UC San Diego, who is studying biochemistry and cell biology, said that while in the foster care system, she was forced into situations where she was expected to care for her foster parents, even if they did not show her affection.

She said Watkins is there for her in her most challenging moments, both academically and personally. She's even been able to intern with Watkins' husband and son at their science-related jobs.

"With [Jeannine and I], I have someone who genuinely wants to spend time with me and cares about me," Maria said. "With the foster care system, generally people get paid to do it. Jeannine is going into this possibly losing time to see and know me. It's just all around good."

Because Maria graduates in June, her relationship with Watkins officially ends in about four months, at least on paper. However, the pair considers their friendship a "forever deal," as Maria described it.

Watkins encourages anyone who is thinking about volunteering and giving back to look into helping foster youth through Promises2Kids.

"I'd tell anybody that's even thinking about becoming a mentor that it can change their life immensely and change the life of another person," she said. "It's just a fantastic opportunity, and I think anyone should do it if they're interested."

For more information about Promises2Kids, visit www.promises2kids.org.

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