Ask Eric Rodriguez about his childhood, and what he remembers is moving–from group home to group home, foster home to foster home. “When I was 8 and 9, I was all up and down California,” says Rodriguez, now 20.

At age 11, he was placed in a foster home that would become most like a real family to him, where there were other kids his age and a caring older couple in charge. But even then, there were conflicts and disagreements, and he left when he was 17.

For foster children who leave the system or are “aged out” when they turn 18, there are few safety nets. But Rodriguez was one of the fortunate ones taken in by Unity Care Group, a San Jose-based nonprofit agency that helps guide foster youth to an independent adulthood. He is now planning for college and a career in industrial design.

“They’ve helped me discover who I am,” said the soft-spoken Rodriguez. “Now I know about my abilities. … I’ve come into myself and gotten over being mad at everything.”

Unity Care celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and has continued to expand its innovative services. It now aids about 3,500 youth and families each year throughout the Bay Area as well as in Monterey and Placer counties.

The agency opened its first six-bed home for boys in August of 1993, and today its housing services include seven group homes and two affordable housing complexes in San Jose.

Rodriguez is in a Unity Care program called Transitional Housing Placement Plus, in one of the apartment buildings owned by the nonprofit. There, he has not just a place to live but also considerable support from Unity staff, which offers life skills workshops, employment assistance, mental health services and other counseling to help foster youth to live on their own and lead productive lives.

“The main goal is to be responsible,” said Rodriguez. “I can imagine where I would be [without Unity Care], but it wouldn’t be good.”

Unity Care offers housing as well as a variety of services for young people and families in the foster care system, but the assistance it offers to former foster youth is especially valuable these days, as it becomes ever more challenging for young people to strike out on their own.

Foster children are especially at risk because they may not have learned the life skills needed for independent living. They are often shuffled around so much that they aren’t able to absorb the lessons that most of us take for granted: how to handle money or drive a car, for instance, or how to cook a healthy meal.

But a larger issue is that these young people often don’t trust anyone or want to get emotionally attached because of their experiences in the foster care system.

“They experience a revolving door of people in their lives,” said Unity Care founder and CEO André Chapman. “It’s overwhelming, and that’s why they don’t trust people. They’re tired of being hurt.”

They also may not have gotten an adequate education during their foster care experience. Fewer than 50 percent of foster children graduate from high school or earn a GED, according to figures from the California Department of Social Services. Rodriguez says he was weak on reading and math, and that he wasn’t able to focus.

“When you leave the system, you think you’re ready,” he said. “But no one really understands what’s involved until they’re out.”

Chapman, who formerly worked in the high tech industry in Silicon Valley, came into contact with foster youth in the early 1990s, and the need impressed him so much that he began Unity Care.

The statistics are decidedly grim. According to the Lucile Packard Foundation’s “Kids Data 2011,” there are more than 56,000 children in California’s foster care system due to abuse or neglect. Each year, thousands of them age out of the system without sufficient education, employment skills or housing, leaving them at risk of becoming further dependent on social welfare and more likely to end up incarcerated or on drugs.

“We’ve set up this population to fail,” said Chapman.

Because of their lack of life skills and family support, many become homeless when they exit the foster care system–a figure as high as 50 percent, according to the California Foster Care News blog, quoting Santa Clara County Assemblyman Jim Beall.

Unity Care addresses these issues through its various programs and services. Chapman said each youth who comes into Unity Care programs is matched with a case worker, and an individualized plan is made up to address that youth’s needs, taking him or her from “a place of dependency to self-sufficiency.”

Unity Care staff aim for a two-year window to give them life and employment skills, as well as to stabilize any mental health issues.

Also important to the scheme of things are parenting classes, since foster youth may have babies before they’re ready for them. Mari French, 21, is in a Unity THP program and says one of the things she appreciates most is the parenting advice, which has helped her care for her son, 2-year-old Joseph.

“I also learned how to budget and how to make grocery lists,” said French, who was placed in foster care at age 3.

The agency also seeks to reunite birth families when possible, putting young people in touch with their families and strengthening those bonds. Sometimes, Chapman said, the family loses track of the child in the foster system, even though they’d like to be involved.

Unity Care’s files are full of success stories, and those who have been helped by the agency often give back.

One of these is Makel Ali, who was helped by Unity Care as a teenager in the late 1990s and is now a counselor in its WRAP program.

“I felt a comfort here that I’d never felt before,” recalled Ali, who said he was struck at the time by how many of the Unity staffers were young and people of color. “I really felt they honestly cared, and they weren’t making me empty promises.”

Unity Care’s counselors helped Ali apply to college–he was accepted at eight different universities–and although college proved to be not the right path for him, he eventually returned to Unity to work there and give back to those who had aided him.

“It’s completely awesome to be a counselor here,” he said, adding that his own experience in the foster care system helps him connect with his charges.

One positive development is a new law in California, AB 12, that allows foster youth at age 18 to opt back into the system until age 21, giving them several more years to figure out a life path. But this also presents a challenge for placing this population. Unity Care now has between 200 and 300 youth on its waiting list.

For Eric Rodriguez, working toward his dream of going to college is something he couldn’t have imagined for himself as a young teenager in foster care. But now, his goals keep him going.

“I know exactly what I need to do,” he said.

For more information about Unity Care, visit unitycare.org.