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Foster kids in Kansas and Missouri can get environmental jobs under a new EPA program

The federal grant was given to foster care agency Cornerstones of Care to clean up
Blaise Mesa
Kansas City Beacon
The federal grant was given to foster care agency Cornerstones of Care to clean up polluted brownfield sites.

Foster youth are more likely to be unemployed, food insecure or homeless. They're the focus of an EPA grant program with a specific goal of training a workforce capable of cleaning up polluted brownfield sites — unused, polluted plots of land.

A growing program in Kansas and Missouri aims to set up more kids for environmental jobs — and it’s focusing on foster kids.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is spending more than $450,000 to help foster children in the two states land environmental jobs.

Those kids spend days in the classroom studying for key certifications — like hazardous-waste management — and other days they’ll get “knee deep in a creek … doing water testing.”

That grant money — routed through private foster care firm Cornerstones of Care in a program called Build Trybe — tries to train a future workforce to clean up polluted so-called brownfield sites for redevelopment.

Cleaning up a brownfield site can increase property values by up to 15% and increase tax revenues, the EPA says.

The Cornerstones grant is open to 50 kids with the goal of giving 25 of them jobs cleaning up polluted brownfield sites in Missouri. People in the Build Trybe program range between 16 and 24 years old. The program targets young people transitioning out of foster care, said Theo Bunch, director of Build Trybe.

Bunch said the people in the program could get the certifications on their own, but it’s harder for young people without the support of families to meet that goal.

“To provide shelter and food and therapy is not enough,” Bunch said. “You have to help them transition into being successful adults. And that means career training.”

Foster kids are more likely to be unemployed, hungry or homeless. But investment in job-training programs can help them, a U.S. Department of Education review found. Foster youth had a 20% chance of getting a living wage, but that jumped to 80% when they had formal help finding work.

Mike Fonkert, deputy director with foster care advocacy group Kansas Appleseed, said foster kids likely struggle more because of the instability they face. They may bounce from home to home or school to school. That makes it harder to prepare for college or search for a stable job.

Fonkert said he hasn’t seen Kansas-specific data on youth employment. He did say he’s seen anecdotal evidence that Kansas struggles with finding jobs for young people when they emerge from foster homes.

“A lot of young people that we’ve interacted with have struggled with higher education, with getting jobs, with keeping jobs,” Fonkert said.

Build Trybe and Cornerstones of Care try to reduce those barriers. Bunch said they don’t turn kids away, whether they’re from Kansas or Missouri. The program also provides transportation and a place for them to learn.

The grant funding from the EPA didn’t help create the program from scratch, but it did provide years of steady funding that is hard to find in nonprofit work, Bunch said. He said the grant provides a rare sense of security because of steady funding, which isn’t a guarantee in the nonprofit world.

“It’s definitely workforce development for young adults,” he said. “It’s definitely there to add rungs of the ladder and level the playing field.”

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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