Their stories may be slightly different, but their struggles are the same. April White and Andrea Cowart, both 21, and Kyle Hickman, 19, grew up in foster care, moving from family to family and group home to shelter, or sometimes, a friend’s couch. By the time they were teenagers, each had lived in dozens of places and attended dozens of schools, often a different one every year.
The odds were stacked against them, especially when they turned 18 and "aged out'' of the Florida foster care system, leaving them to manage on their own with few resources and little or no guidance. Like many of their peers, they were one step away from living on the street.
"You think when you reach 18 that it will be a relief to be out of foster care, but it’s a big slap of reality,'' says Kyle. "You really don’t have a clue about how to manage on your own, yet you have to figure out how to get a job, find a car, apply for school, pay taxes, get insurance, buy food and everything else that goes with day-to-day life.''
By the time April had aged out of the foster care system, she had lived in 32 foster homes, had two failed adoptions, and been sent to live at a wilderness camp for girls sponsored by Eckerd Youth Alternatives.
"When I turned 18, I had no where to go,'' says April, "and I had no history of a permanent address, which made it even more of a struggle to apply for services.''
Andrea’s situation was just as difficult. And she also had a daughter.
But despite their many challenges, today April, Andrea and Kyle are well on their way to success. They have overcome the odds that put this population at high risk for homelessness, jail time, unemployment and dropping out of school.
Preparing For Life On Their Own
Much of the credit for their transformation goes to Ready for Life
, a Pinellas County organization that serves as an advocate for foster teens ages 16 to 24 -- the ages when the youth are most vulnerable to failure.
In 2007, David Fischer, president of the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay,
became concerned about the plight of Pinellas County youth who were aging out of the foster care system -- approximately 100 each year.
He realized that while Hillsborough County had Connected by 25
, a program helping bridge the gap for foster youth, there was nothing like it in Pinellas. "At the time, there was really no system in place at all for these kids,'' Fischer says.
Determined to do something about it, he contacted St. Petersburg entrepreneurs Gerry Hogan and Bud Risser and asked for help. "I told them, 'You will be amazed at what you will find because you won’t believe our society has left such a hole for these kids','' says Fischer.
Taking the best practices from Hillsborough’s program, Hogan and Risser launched Ready for Life in 2009 as a private, not-for-profit youth advocacy program. Kathy Mize, a University of South Carolina graduate with a master’s in social work and 25 years experience in child abuse intervention services, was hired first as a consultant, than as the organization’s full-time director.
Today, in addition to Mize, Ready for Life has one full-time employee, three part-time youth positions and an annual budget of less than $200,000, says Mize.
"From the very beginning, Ready For Life was structured with a very small staff and low overhead so the majority of the money can be channeled to the young people in terms of stipends, incentives, bus passes and other items they may need,'' says Mize. "We get by with tremendous volunteer support. We have 75 community volunteers who allow us to do so much more than we could accomplish alone."
The organization’s operating budget each year comes not from state or federal dollars, but from private fundraising efforts. Donations are solicited from charitable organizations, businesses and individuals.
Funding sources include Community Foundation of Tampa Bay
, Pinellas Community Foundation
, St. Petersburg Times
, Progress Energy,
Eckerd Family Foundation, Eckerd Community Alternatives
, the Alvah and Wyline Chapman Foundation and individual donors.
Opening Eyes To Reality
From the start, Mize was committed that Ready for Life be a voice for the youth.
"They’re the experts, not us,'' she says. "Before we could figure out how to fix the system, we wanted to know what the real problems were so we asked the kids. And we learned that what we thought were the issues wasn’t always the case.''
For example, affordable housing was considered a top priority. But the real problem was much more basic -- how to find a landlord who would accept a young adult with no credit history, no driver’s license, no references or job history and no parent.
Fischer remembers attending a dinner for foster teens who had participated in a journal-writing project.
"I asked the young man next to me how he had spent his 18th birthday,'' says Fisher. "He told me that was the day his foster mother dropped him off at Pinellas Hope
(a temporary emergency homeless shelter in Clearwater). All the kids at the table had experiences like that.''
Within a short period of time, Maze hired April, Kyle and Andrea to serve as Ready for Life youth leaders and to coordinate the Youth Council, a forum that allows foster teens the chance to safely express concerns and fears and to learn about resources that can help them.
"Ready for Life is incredibly important,'' says Andrea, now a sophomore at St. Petersburg College
majoring in social services. "The teen years are already hard and foster teens feel like no one is looking out for their best interest. With Ready for Life, we offer support and show them the way to become self-sufficient.''
Kyle, also a student at St. Petersburg College, agrees. "Ready for Life opens up the doors for kids. It’s the wheels of success.''
Ready for Life
doesn’t provide a hand out or the services foster youth need.
"We’re problem solvers,'' says Mize. "We make the connections with community partners who have the resources that can help the kids make it on their own.''
For example, the Junior League of Clearwater-Dunedin
provides the youth with "Move-In'' kits filled with dishes, pots and pans, silverware, bedding, towels, cleaning supplies and other essentials.
"When I got my first place, it was completely empty,'' says April. "It’s the small things, kids need. They might have food, but nothing to cook with.''
Providing More Than Shelter
Suncoast Voices for Children
, a Pinellas organization helping fill foster children’s unmet needs, teamed up with a local consignment store to make sure the teens had a bed -- otherwise many would sleep on the floor. And this summer, the Pinellas Education Foundation
and Stavros Institute
program gave the kids a five-day crash course in finances at Finance Park Boot Camp.
"Ready for Life is an excellent example of a community-based resource,'' says April Putzulu, communications manager with Eckerd Community Alternatives
, the lead agency for foster care and child welfare services in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
"The state provides financial support to kids aging out of the foster system if they are still in high school, going to college or enrolled in a vocational school,'' says Putzulu. "But there was still a gap and that’s how Ready for Life came about. We are trying to end the cycle of abuse and prevent this population of young people from being a statistic.''
The first time she attended a Ready for Life event, April remembers being so shy that she didn’t look up or even talk. But it was also a turning point in her life. Today she’s a communications major at St. Petersburg College and enjoys public speaking.
"Ready for Life helped me make a lot of connections and now it is helping me help other youth like me.''
Janan Talafer is a St. Petersburg freelance writer who enjoys finding and sharing unique stories that set Tampa Bay apart as a great place to live, work and play. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.