Melissa Howard, 20, is an accounting major at the University of Memphis.
In between studying for her classes, she works at the university bookstore. She has a support system for help with important decisions and any obstacles she encounters. And in conversation, she’s upbeat and enthusiastic about her future.
Melissa Howard, an accounting major at the University of Memphis, finds herself on a road to success, thanks in part to Youth Villages’ Transitional Living program.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
As such, it’s hard to believe that two years ago, Howard was among the most statistically vulnerable youth in the United States. However, because of Youth Villages’ Transitional Living (TL) program, which expanded in October to milestone proportions, her story is drastically different from those of most of the approximately 26,000 young people who age out of the U.S. foster care system annually.
“We’ve served close to 5,000 young people since we started this program in 1999,” said Pat Lawler, CEO of Youth Villages, a Memphis-based national nonprofit dedicated to helping at-risk children and their families live successfully. “And although these are the most vulnerable young people in our state, we’ve seen tremendous success. We’re basically guiding them through their lives, helping them define what they want to do with their lives and helping them achieve those goals.”
A partnership with the state of Tennessee, the TL program has been evolving steadily to help an increasing number of young people each year. Recently, this expansion reached historic levels. Backed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Children's Services Commissioner Jim Henry, Youth Villages’ TL program now will include all youth aging out of foster care in the state, making Tennessee the first state in the nation to make such services available for 100 percent of its foster youth.
“Gov. Haslam and Commissioner Henry are true champions,” Lawler said. “No other state in the country provides anywhere near this level of support for comprehensive transitional services for youth aging out of foster care.”
Currently, there are about 425,000 children in the nation’s foster care system. Once they begin life as independent adults, the future is bleak for most of them. With no strong family ties and limited federal assistance, many of them soon find themselves homeless, unemployed and living lives of poverty or crime.
According to the Midwest Study of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, which tracked more than 700 young people transitioning out of foster care from 2002 to 2011, at 18 months after discharge from state custody, 55 percent of the study participants were living in poverty, 25 percent were homeless and 50 percent were unemployed.
Several states have tried to tackle this problem by providing apartments or group homes for transitioning youth. Youth Villages took a different approach. Through a grant from The Day Foundation, the organization began offering a voluntary transitional living program in 1999, which focused on helping young people develop independent living skills and recognized that these skills vary with each individual.
“We make a strong effort to let each young person drive the program and tell us what they need the most,” said TL Clinical Program Manager Kristen Landers. “Some may not have one single person to turn to once they leave foster care, which could render them homeless. For others, housing may not be an issue, but employment is. Others have educational goals. And some people who age out of care are pregnant or already parenting. So we tend to mobilize quickly to assist with immediate issues first.”
Through the program, Youth Villages’ TL specialists work with 17- to 22-year-old participants to help them with housing, employment, job training, relationship building and other crucial skills. The organization accomplishes these goals through close relationships between program participants and their respective TL specialists.
“Our specialists who work individually with young people have low case loads ¬– they manage about eight or nine young people at a time and see them at least once a week. Our staff is also on call 24/7. In this manner, we’re able to build really strong relationships with the young people we serve,” Landers said.
Howard said her specialist played a crucial role in helping her get where she is today – employed, in school and on the path to an accounting career.
“The first thing we did was work on prioritization and time management. And we talk about different scenarios that come with living on your own – ‘what would you do’-type situations,” Howard said. “It’s a great program to be in, especially if the world is new to you.”
Youth Villages now has 10 years of data collected from the more than 5,000 young people who have received at least 60 days of service in the TL program since 2002. These research results point to remarkable success. Two years after completing the program, 84 percent of them were living independently or with family; 83 percent were in school, graduated or employed; and 77 percent had no involvement with the law.
“I would love people to really understand that this age group, particularly those who are aging out of foster care, is an extraordinary group of young people that often gets overlooked. Just a little bit of support and advocacy can work wonders in their lives,” Landers said.
While donating to Youth Villages makes a huge impact, Landers said the community can also offer support in other ways: Employers can be more receptive to hiring young people aging out of foster care; people with rental properties can work with Youth Villages to provide safe housing for program participants; and anyone can step up and be a mentor to a youth in need.
To offer assistance or more information on Youth Villages and the TL program, visit youthvillages.org.