IT TAKES A VILLAGE: Becoming Independent

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, May 2015. IT TAKES A VILLAGE: An ongoing series examining foster care

Celebrating an 18th birthday, graduating high school, deciding between continuing education or getting a job are all exciting first steps into adulthood. For teens that have grown up in the foster care system, however, those milestones can be quite intimidating. If foster teens make wrong choices, they most likely do not have parents to fall back on.

“Aging out” happens when foster children turn 18 years old and, thus, become legal adults. Kids Central, Inc. — the community-based agency that works with the Florida Department of Children and Families in the Fifth Judicial Circuit — administers an independent living program for teens about to leave the foster care system. Coordinators begin the transition planning process when children in the foster care system turn age 17. The young person’s goals are the driving force for the transition plan, which looks at academic and career options as well as counseling and medical needs.

Years ago, foster children did not have an option to remain in foster care after their 18th birthday — whether they were ready or not for the world. The independent living program, however, offers foster youth an option to remain in extended foster care until they turn 22 if they are enrolled in an eligible post-secondary institution or until age 23 if they have medical disabilities. Those furthering their education can get financial assistance through Florida’s Post Secondary Education Service Support program.

“I felt very comfortable transitioning into Independent Living,” says 21-year-old Brandon F. of Lake County. “I had a supportive team of mentors who guided me through the process.”

Brandon, currently a sophomore at the University of Florida majoring in philosophy, believes the Independent Living program administered through Kids Central taught him the life skills he needed. He also credits the support from his foster parents, who adopted him, for his success.

Likewise, 22-year-old Giovanni M. believes the Independent Living program through Kids Central helped her develop skills that were necessary to her success. The former Lake County resident spent four years in the foster care system. She is finishing her studies at College of Central Florida in Ocala and plans a career in social work, where she can work with foster kids.

“My advice to other youth who are in the foster care system is to remember you can be anything you set your mind to,” says Giovanni. “Don’t let the label people put on you stop you.”

Currently, Kids Central serves 16 Lake County youths in its independent living program, and 13 of those are enrolled in higher education institutions. The others are 18 year olds who are completing high school or General Equivalency Diploma programs. Often, foster children get academically behind because of moves or the traumatic situations they’ve endured that put them into foster care in the first place. They are aging out of the system, but still need to complete high school or a GED.

“This year, we’ve been working on approving homes where these young people can stay after they age out,” says Hannah Rios, supervisor for Kids Central’s Independent Living program. “We’ve had good results so far. Empty nesters who can provide a room temporarily are often ideal, because these kids don’t have to be watched 24 hours a day.”

Brandon, who plans to own his own business some day, advises those young people coming behind him to focus on self-improvement as they begin the aging out process. “The journey may seem long, but stay dedicated to becoming the best version of yourself that you can be.”

A stepping stone to independence

Not every foster child wants to go to college. Many are anxious to get jobs and start lives on their own. Every day, Jack Foreman of Leesburg talks to young people who have found that starting from scratch and achieving complete independence is not so easy.

In 2006, Jack founded the Stepping Stone Coalition in Lake County to help the young people that were transitioning out of foster care. Since then, the non-profit organization has expanded its services to help foster families that have children with medical needs and grandparents who care for grandchildren placed in the child welfare system. However, it’s often the young people starting out that concern Jack the most.

“I pray for the ones graduating every day,” he says. “They have tough choices and no one to lean on. Many of these kids don’t know how to manage money and can end up homeless.”

Jack and his wife Joy, who works at Kids Central, have helped four of their own foster children age out of the system. Two are in higher education. The others went to work. The couple recognized firsthand that young people don’t always realize what it takes to set up a first apartment.

“Things like buying a shower curtain or stocking a kitchen take money,” says Joy. “They don’t always realize how quickly it’s going to add up.”

In March, the Stepping Stone Coalition opened a thrift store in the Santa Rosa Plaza on Highway 27, just south of Leesburg. In addition to selling gently used household goods, the store will raise money for the coalition’s food pantry, which serves 200 children and 85 families.

“We currently go through about 3,500 pounds of food a week,” says Jack. “We get donations, but we still have to buy some food.”

A retired artist for Disney and Universal, Jack opened Stepping Stone Coalition with his own funds. He considers it a calling to help foster families and teens who are transitioning out of the system. In the midst of planning for the thrift store, the coalition took over the management of Converge Teen Center in Lake Square Mall.

“We’re working on setting up life skills program at Converge, which is a faith-based program,” he says. “Just handling daily chores can be a challenge for some of these kids.”

Seeing success is often slow, the Foremans say, but it does happen, especially when relationships and trust are built.

“We want to work with them on an ongoing basis,” says Jack. “My goal is to get grants to help them with rent and electricity. They need a buffer when they start out.”

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