Dyan Foster, longtime champion of at-risk youths, dies at 56
By Chris Smith | Aug 15, 2016

Dyan Foster, who grew up mothered and mentored by one of Sonoma County’s foremost educators and committed herself to using art and passionate advocacy to redirect the lives of kids in or headed for trouble, died Sunday.

The mother of three and founder of several ambitious programs and schools for at-risk youths was 56.

“She had an impact,” said her husband of 31 years, Peter Foster. He said her work with seriously challenged students, many of whom had left or been forced out of traditional and continuation schools, “got them to finish and graduate, and a lot of them to go on to college.”

There are attorneys and professionals in entertainment and other fields who’ve returned to Dyan Foster to thank her for changing their lives through her former Routes for Youth, Teens Teaching Through Theater, Sonoma County Teen Court, and Arts & Ethics Academy charter high school.

Foster gave much credit for her success in redirecting the trajectories of kids, many from single-family and impoverished homes, to her mother. Carole Ellis is retired from a long run as one of the region’s most celebrated school administrators and advocates of equal rights and opportunity.

Foster was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue last October. Her husband said Monday she underwent successful radiation and chemotherapy treatment in March and April.

In late July, Peter Foster said, follow-up tests and exams all came back negative. “The tumor was gone,” he said.

But all through the treatment regimen, Dyan Foster found it difficult to eat. She lost about 45 pounds, her husband said.

He said a shortage of electrolytes and potassium is responsible for the cardiac arrest his wife suffered as they lay in bed the night of Aug. 7 and toured the internet for possible destinations of future travel.

Peter Foster said he dialed 911 and followed the dispatcher’s instructions for administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation to his wife, who was not breathing. Firefighters and paramedics arrived quickly at their Santa Rosa home, he said, and revived her.

In the emergency department at Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Rosa hospital, Peter Foster said, “they worked on her for about three hours and got her stabilized.”

For most of the next six days, Dyan Foster was in the intensive care unit, where the treatments included a medically induced coma. Her husband said she regained consciousness but apparently had suffered some brain damage when her heart stopped at home.

As she was visited by her three children, other members of her family and some of her friends, Foster was unable to speak or to move. She died at 8:30 Sunday morning.

Her husband said he hopes to help perpetuate her legacy by creating a foundation that will support community efforts to heighten the lives and expectations of children who aren’t doing well in school or in life.

The former Dyan Ellis was a member of the first graduating class of Petaluma’s Casa Grande High School. At Sonoma State University she created her own major, Ethical Media, and put it to use as an intern, and then employee, of public radio-and-TV station KRCB, working along founder Nancy Dobbs.

She was still a student and was working as a waitress at Steve’s Barbecue in Petaluma when she met Peter Foster on Halloween Night of 1984. They married the following May.

Dyan Foster left KRCB to found her own nonprofit, Routes for Youth, and its 4Ts or Teens Teaching Through Theater program. The focus of it and her future initiatives was to engage and inspire at-risk youngsters through the arts and mentoring.

Dyan Foster’s 35 years of work with at-risk children brought her great recognition and awards that included 2009 “Woman of the Year” by then-Assemblywoman Noreen Evans and tributes from the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, the organization Minimizing Occurrence of Violence in Everyday Society, or MOVES; former state Sen. Wes Chesbro and late state Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins.

In her free time she loved to travel, spend time with her children and other relatives, visit art museums and make films.

Her experience in the medical system inspired her to co-found the nonprofit Supporting Champions, whose mission is to promote “the importance of balancing the medical-patient relationship and to help patients be seen and heard by family, friends and health practitioners.”

In addition to her husband and her mother in Santa Rosa, Foster is survived by her children, Bree Foster James of Forestville, Max Foster of Las Vegas and Jace Foster of Santa Rosa, and her sister, Susie Ellis of Santa Rosa.

A funeral service is at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa. A memorial celebration will follow.

Dyan Foster, right, speaks at a forum on the juvenile justice system at the Charles DeMeo Teen Center in Santa Rosa on March 1, 2008. Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat