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San Jose woman's nonprofit gives foster teens, young adults path to academic success

Nationwide, about half of all foster kids drop out of high school and fewer than 3% make it through four years of college. A Bay Area woman is helping reverse that trend in the lives of hundreds of Bay Area young people every year.

Elise Cutini had just retired as a high-tech management consultant to spend more time with her four teenage daughters. Then she welcomed a chance to change the lives of foster children.

"I want them to come away from our support with knowing that they can do whatever they put their minds to doing, whatever goals they have for their life," she said.

In 2008, Cutini became CEO of Pivotal and expanded its services. The San Jose nonprofit gives free coaching, scholarships, internships and employment support for more than 550 people a year, aged 13 to 30, who are or have been in the foster care system.

Twenty-year-old San Jose resident Anaztajia Elemen says she almost failed to graduate from high school, but caring staff came alongside. Pivotal's enrichment services manager invited Elemen to come do her homework next to her whenever she had a chance.

Elemen credits that accountability and compassion for helping her earn her high school diploma. She was among the 75% of Pivotal scholars to go to college.

"Just even knowing that somebody who's not even an academic coach cared that much about my graduation, it made me feel seen, heard and worthy," Elemen said.

Her foster mom, Stephanie Taylor, says Pivotal's internships gave Elemen confidence and helped narrow her career goal to social work.

"Pivotal became like an extension of the family, supporting her in deep ways," Taylor said.

Cutini reflected, "The extended family part makes me very happy because we want our young people to feel cared for, loved and important."

Part of the support is financial. Nearly 200 youth received $500,000 dollars in Pivotal scholarships this year funded by private philanthropists.

An emergency fund supplied basics like food, rent and laptops in the pandemic. But keeping connections is also key - coaches who started meeting face-to-face continue relationships over Zoom with youth who have moved to 24 counties and 13 states.

The support helps level the playing field.

"When I would tell people I was a foster child, or part of the foster care system, it was kind of like 'poor you' situation, but Pivotal makes it so you're just like everyone else," Elemen said.

Cutini's mother spent her teenage years in foster care, and the experience has helped drive her passion for her service. And when she hears stories like Elemen's about Pivotal's impact?

"It's why I show up every day. It's why I show up for 16, 17 years," Cutini said. She added she getting ready to retire, but will select her successor first.

So for her pivotal role in helping foster youth realize their dreams, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Elise Cutini. More information on the programs Pivotal provides are available at the non-profit's website.

Source: CBS Bay Area

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