Every state releases youth that are troubled and without the skills or resources to cope in the community. Nationally, up to 80% of the 15,000 youth aging out of foster care each year are leading dysfunctional lives.

Few states think through the consequences when youth do not meld into the community to become healthy and productive citizens. Here’s one great example, this program Katz said is successful: 61 percent of the women have high school diplomas or GEDs, 97 percent are enrolled in school and 60 percent have found part-time work or are in school full-time.; http://www.miamiherald.com/492/story/1398131.htmlMiami-Dade nonprofit offers affordable housing to women aging out of foster care.

BY JONATHAN DAVILA

JDAVILA@MIAMIHERALD.COM
In Miami-Dade County, more than 130 girls become too old for foster-care eligibility every year, according to a study by Our Kids, a Florida-based nonprofit.

They’re given a monthly stipend of about $1,135 by the county and are required to attend school to keep receiving it.

“I was living paycheck to paycheck. It was kind of crazy,” said Rachel Johnson, a 25-year-old former foster child who aged out of the system at 18.

Some of the women end up pregnant, homeless or dropping out of school.

Enter Casa Valentina: a tax-exempt nonprofit since October 2006 dedicated to providing women who are too old for foster care with affordable housing and several educational and life-training services.

Located at 2990 SW 35th Ave., the program is for women 18 to 22 years old who do not have children and are not pregnant. They must also be drug free and must be in some sort of school: high school, a GED program or college.

The goal is to make educated, independent women out of the former foster children.

“The underlying focus of our program is academic achievement,” said Chelsea Wilkerson, Casa Valentina’s executive director. “We believe strongly that in order for one to be independent and self-sufficient, you need to be able to complete your education and have some sort of degree or vocational certificate.”

Casa Valentina hires professional tutors for its clients. It also conducts training sessions throughout the year that teach its women financial literacy, safe sex, nutritious cooking and several other skills. The women are housed in fully furnished apartments that include all utilities as well as computers, printers, Internet access and television. The housing and all of the program’s services cost each woman $320 a month.

“The $320 is under a third of their income. It gives them the opportunity to save for their futures,” said Sharon Katz, the program director for Casa Valentina.

Johnson eventually joined the program. She became its first graduate and also an example of the program’s leniency — she was already 22 years old when she began and stayed until she was 24.

Before joining, she lived in a tiny, one-bedroom Liberty City apartment while she attended to Miami Dade College full-time.

“It was OK, but the neighborhood wasn’t safe. I didn’t like it,” she said. “Certain landlords lie to you and get you to sign a contract — they’d increase rent on us without telling us. It was a struggle. People try to take advantage of you.”

Johnson, a former foster child who was sexually abused at age 5, was unhappy and had self-esteem issues when she joined the program.

Soon enough, she became Casa Valentina’s poster child. She spoke to other members and people in the community about her struggles growing up. It made some people cry. It inspired others.

She began feeling better about herself. The program wasn’t only a place to live and learn for her, it also served as a place where the she got confidence and self-esteem boosts.

“What I gained out of the program is, I say, my self worth,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been a good person with my self esteem. They helped me build myself up. They taught me how to love myself more and appreciate my accomplishments.”

Johnson is now a senior at Florida International University majoring in criminal justice. She also works at a Hallandale Beach law firm as a records clerk — good experience for an aspiring attorney who wants to attend St. Thomas University law school.

Not all of the young women in the program have reached college like Johnson, though, and Casa Valentina hires professional tutors to get them up to speed.

“We have a lot of girls who come to us reading at a second- or third-grade level. . . . A lot of them are 18 years old, but they’re sophomores in high school and really struggle academically,” Wilkerson said. “They get frustrated and a lot of times they end up dropping out of school, and that’s something that we really work hard to prevent.”

Other young women have trouble taking care of their medical needs and Casa Valentina helps them in that aspect.

“A lot of them have never gone to a doctor on their own before. We take them to the doctor. We take them to the dentist. We help them communicate with the doctor what the medical problem is until they’re ready to do it on their own. . . . A lot of it is just modeling how you do things,” said Wilkerson, noting some of the young women didn’t have parents who were good role models.

Katz said the program is successful: 61 percent of the women have high school diplomas or GEDs, 97 percent are enrolled in school and 60 percent have found part-time work or are in school full-time.

Wilkerson said it’s inspiring to see the women mature and develop. But there’s one moment that is really touching for her.

“Taking corsages to girls when they’re getting ready for prom,” she said.

Eventually, she’d like to see the program expand to include the “unserved population”: pregnant women and young men who age out of foster care. and try seriously to help these children in their transition to adulthood. A small investment goes a long way to helping

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