Making Waves: Making It on Their Own. Foster-Care Youth Receive Help with Independent LivingMay 07, 2021 03:17PM ● By ANN MARIE O’PHELAN
For young people who are trying to get out on their own, the process can be daunting. There are jobs and careers to consider, shopping and budgeting to undertake and transportation needs to address. For those who have been in foster care, the journey can be overwhelming. Thanks to the Independent Living program—offered through The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida—youth, ages 13-17, who are under the Florida Department of Children and Families’ legal custody, are eligible for this helpful hands-on training program.
Participants take field trips to places like Echo Farms, where they learn about the importance of nutrition and growing food. They practice using public transportation via LeeTran, taking the bus system to and from designated locations. Also part of the program is college walking tours, visiting local stores, meal planning and nutritional education. “More intensive one-on-one training for youth and young adults formerly in care is also offered,” says Melissa Bonner, quality management supervisor for the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida. This may include assistance with mental health counseling, tutoring, opening bank accounts, and getting a driver’s license or state ID.
Other organizations such as the Halo Project are also involved. This organization has been a provider for the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida since 2009. “The Halo Project provides activities and life-skills training for teenagers, plus wrap-around services for young adults who have aged out of foster care,” explains director Shawn Holiday. He became inspired to work with youth after directing and teaching acting in youth theater. Holiday has been a licensed foster parent and received numerous training hours on counseling, conflict resolution, team building, communication, spirituality and meditation.
“Working with young people is the most impactful way to make a difference. I am constantly reminded about the resilience of the human spirit, as long as they can feel safe, comfortable and understand that their voice matters,” says Holiday.
Additionally, Florida Gulf Coast University developed its Mentoring for Educational Success program, matching college students with youth in licensed foster care to help expose them to collegiate life. Although the program has been temporarily suspended, the hope is “to establish something similar in the future, and possibly expanding,” explains Bonner.
For those who need longer-term care, the Extended Foster Care program is in place. Young adults can remain in care until age 23, as long as they are involved in a qualifying activity such as employment or school enrollment. “If they choose to participate in this program, the agency provides ongoing case-management services, and there is court oversight to ensure that identified services for the young adult are being provided,” explains Bonner. Furthermore, young adults who turn 18 in foster care are eligible for free college tuition at a state school in Florida, and they receive assistance with health care.
Postsecondary Education Services and Support (PESS) is a program in which young adults who have obtained their high school diplomas and are attending a postsecondary institution are eligible to receive a monthly stipend while in school. “With the help of case managers, young adults are provided with an opportunity to further their education, hopefully leading to stable employment and financial stability,” explains Bonner.
Aftercare Support Services are available for young adults who need temporary assistance and are not involved in either Extended Foster Care or PESS.
Florida Youth SHINE (FYS) is a statewide advocacy program that engages young people in foster care to promote real improvements to the system. This peer-driven organization encourages current and former foster-care youth to seek leadership roles. In 2020, the Southwest Florida Chapter of FYS sponsored a Thanksgiving dinner for teenagers living in group homes. “Led by teenagers and young adults, they generated donations, coordinated volunteers, planned the meal, created activities, took pictures and provided a memorable event for other foster children,” explains Holiday. Youth were provided with guidance from mentors, some of whom had once experienced group homes.
The experience empowered the youth to make decisions and plan an entire event that they knew would impact their peers over the holiday season. “Close bonds were drawn, and they were reminded about the sweetness of life,” adds Holiday.
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Ann Marie O’Phelan is a Southwest Florida resident and a regular contributor to TOTI Media.