Helping Teens Transition from Foster Care to Adulthood

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(page 3 of 4)

The three young women now living in this Tree House home are ages 18 to 22 and attending college through the state’s PESS program, receiving a monthly stipend to help pay their rent. 

Tree House sets aside a portion of that rent to give back to the residents when they graduate, said Andrea Carlile, the volunteer president of the Tree House board of directors. 

“It’s such a unique model,” said Carlile. “It would be great to expand it to other places.”

Having a resident adviser in the home is the key.

 “You could call me a big sister,” said the home’s former resident adviser, Ashley Moniece Jackson, 24, who aged out of the foster care system herself in 2008. She had lived in more than 15 foster care homes before her 18th birthday, she said.

“I tell them they’re blessed to have this opportunity,” Jackson said of her roommates. “When I was 18, I was on my own. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the things you face when you turn 18 and go out in the world.”

Jackson, a social work major at FAMU, was set to graduate in December and leave Tree House. At press time, the program was looking for her replacement, said Carlile. 

Jackson said having an adviser with a background in the foster care system is a “great advantage” for these young women. “They know I genuinely care and come from the same background as they do.”

Teaching life skills is a big part of preparing these teens for independent living, said Charles McDonald, executive director of The Children’s Home Society in the Big Bend area. The organization partners with local businesses to provide the girls health and fitness training, financial management, cooking classes and other abilities. 

The state would like to expand on the Tree House mission.

“There’s nothing else like this for former foster-care young adults in the state of Florida,” McKibbin said.

He stressed the need for more quality housing for young people who may be 18 or 19 and faltering, who need to get a GED or get into college.

“We want to get them engaged in some kind of activity to live a happy and productive life,” McKibbin said.

Too often, these kids end up on the street. There is surely “a problem of homeless youth,” said Kevin Priest, CEO and president of Capital City Youth Services, which provides emergency housing. 

Priest said 702 homeless youths attended Leon County schools last year. 

He said the lack of affordable housing is one factor leading to homelessness for young people who can’t cover first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security payments or don’t have a “guarantor” for a lease.

Organizations such as the Guardian ad Litem’s First Beginning program and several church ministries are reaching out to these youths to help them find lodging and furnish a place once they find one.

Occasionally, people are willing to take in a young person but they can’t afford an extra bed, said Cousins.

“Some of them are left with nothing,” said John Cousins, who leads the 240-member iServe Team ministry at Killearn United Methodist Church. The ministry is collecting beds and furniture for former foster-care youths.

“There’s way more of a support system out there now,” than there was for teens aging out in years past, said Patten. 

Sometimes that support comes from other foster care youths who understand the challenges. 

The advocacy group Florida Youth Shine brings together current or former foster-care teens and young adults between the ages of 13 and 24.

 “They get so much encouragement and support from each other,” said Korie Mitchell, lead coordinator for the Tallahassee chapter of Florida Youth Shine. “When a younger kid has a problem, the older ones can say ‘I understand you. Let’s talk.’ They’ve lived it.

“They’re like family,” she said. “And that’s what these kids need.”

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