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People who age out of foster care often need help

Earl Washington knows what it is like to be 18 and itching to be free of the constraints of the foster care system he called home for 10 years.

Jeff Culver knows what it is like to help young people like Washington who age out of foster care but who have very little support to help them succeed in life.

With experiences on both sides of the foster care fence, the two men have established a non-profit agency called Fostering Goodwill, which focuses on the youth who are legally adults but who might not have the skills to maneuver in the adult world.

"We always talked about starting something for older foster youth," Washington said, "those who are about to age out and up to 23 or 24. People just want to get rid of them."

The numbers bear that out.

The results of a 2007 study by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that annually 20,000 kids age out of foster care nationwide, an increase of 41 percent since 1998. One third of them didn't have a high school diploma and about 20 percent become homeless. Nearly half of the young women who have been in foster care become pregnant at least once by age 19.

Washington, director of the child placing services at the Methodist Home Independent Living Program, said he grew up in foster care in Lexington, spending a brief time in the juvenile justice system as well.

"I left my home when I was about 9 years old," he said. "I returned home for two to four months at a time. Nothing consistent."

At 18, he turned his attention to Eastern Kentucky University, where he wanted to study social work and give back to the community.

"I didn't have any expectations of being successful at that. I didn't go to public school until the last semester of my senior year. I attended classes at the Metro Group Home.

"I wanted my freedom and I wanted to be completely free of everybody," he said. "What we want may not be what we need. It is definitely not what may be best for you."

Upon reaching 18, those leaving state care have the option of staying with state supervision through independent living programs, which find them apartments and money to attend a public college or university or trade school.

"There are great programs, but they still have some gaps," Washington said. "We are working to improve those programs."

But, even if the youths leave the system, they can still return when times get tough and they discover that life as an adult can be difficult.

"They just need a mentor because they have no one," said Culver, who works with the state's social and juvenile services. "Some go back to families, where there may not be a meaningful relationship. Many go from place to place. But if they keep in touch with us, we will help them."

Emotions can run particularly low this time of year when the themes of love, family and home are stressed.

To help lift their spirits, Washington and Culver have devised a program called Christmas Wishes.

They ask for monetary donations or gift cards, which will then be distributed to youths who aren't quite the people we think of at Christmastime.

Along with the gift cards, a survey is mailed to the youths who are still in touch with independent living programs, asking what more can be done to bridge their entry into adulthood. Culver said they will use the responses to make improvements.

"People want to be Santa to 5-year-olds, but teenagers need something, too," said Susan Otero, owner of Rooster and Rose Home Boutique in Nicholasville's Brannon Crossing Shopping Center. "I think they are kind of forgotten with everything. They need just as much attention as the little ones."

Otero, who has spearheaded fund drives for foster children 10 years and older, started collecting luggage for children in state care when her son was a Cub Scout.

Before 9/11, Otero invited friends over for a fancy open house at Christmastime. Now she gives them a snack and asks them to donate gift cards to the youth.

"We target the older kids," she said. "We target the most needy, the ones whose parents have signed off on them or are incarcerated, or have drug issues, or health issues.

"These kids will be coming into the community soon and I would rather they have a good experience."

You can help by sending either a check or a gift card from a major retailer to Fostering Goodwill, P.O. Box 54561, Lexington, Ky., 40555.

They can also be reached by phone at (859) 509-4307 or (502) 741-9527.

Or you can drop off money or gift cards at Rooster and Rose Home Boutique. For every $5 donated at the shop, Otero said, donors are given a raffle ticket for a chance at a beautiful gift basket.

Plus, she said, she'll gladly give your gently used luggage to the foster children so that they won't have to move their possessions from place to place in a plastic garbage bag.

The gift cards can be loaded with any amount, but keep in mind how much a sweater or shoes costs these days. Monetary donations will be bundled to give larger gift cards to the young people who have children.

"They have to grow up fast when they age out of the system," Washington said. "It was just me when I went to college. I didn't have anyone to put money on my meal card.

"Speaking as a service provider, we don't prepare these kids well and then we expect them to succeed," he continued. "They have all the tools. We just need to help them get to that point."