14TH ST — For the past 16 years, a small home at the corner of 14th and Pico has served as a lifesaving haven for young women aging out of the County’s foster care system.

The facility, operated as part of the YWCA’s Transitional Housing and Education, held a “Sweet 16” party on May 29 to celebrate 16 years of providing foster youth with a home, food, social support and vital services during what can be a make or break time in their lives.

“What we do is, the staff and residents work together to create what we call life plans, it’s not a case management plan, it’s not an individual achievement plan, it’s a life plan because it doesn’t stop here, it continues long after they leave here,” said Program Director Maria Abenes.

Applicants for the program must be former foster youth, single women without children, between the ages of 18 and 22, academically / vocationally motivated, invested in working part-time, dedicated to personal growth, free of drugs and alcohol and committed to long term planning.

The 5,000 square foot home is part of the YWCA’s complex. Residents share bedrooms with a roommate, and have access to communal space such as a kitchen, living room and office space. Thanks to a newly received grant and funding from the local Rotary Club, the program will expand from eight to 12 residents.

Women are expected to enroll in some kind of education program and have a regular monthly income. While there is no fee to participate, the women are required to save 50 percent of their monthly income to ensure they have financial resources as they transition to independent living.

In addition to the required savings, the program has some basic rules regarding behavior and residents participate in several skill building programs. Abenes said the program places a strong focus on developing life skills such as budgeting for weekly meals. While staff is on site to provide support services related to vocational or educational programs, Abenes said the women are expected to live as adults.

“This is their house, everything you see is because of them, if they have a problem, that’s not facility related, I say, ‘good luck with that because this is your home, you take care of it, we’re here to support you but not like that,’” she during a group presentation.

Two alumni of the program spoke at the celebration and both said their experience had drastically altered their lives.

“This blew my mind because it was so beautiful, it was something I had never seen before in my entire life,” said Shari Walker. “Again I grew up in the projects, a lot of violence, a lot of just roaches an bugs and all types of things. When I walked in here it was so beautiful and it made me feel beautiful and the people were so beautiful because they made me feel beautify and whenever I doubted how great I could be they spoke light into my life.”

Briana Spencer said the Santa Monica facility showed her a new way to live and said the experience helped her build confidence in her own self worth.

“I saw that foster youth had a voice and I never felt like I really had a voice or had a choice to have a voice and just being here made me more confident in speaking out in terms of foster youth because our voices matter and a lot of times you don’t see that and that’s so important, that’s vital in terms of making changes,” she said.

She said her time at the home was critical to her ability to receive an education.

“Now looking back at it I can only see me moving forward and I feel that this has been a blessing because when I did live here I got the chance, to finish my GED and get my high school diploma because when I first go here I wasn’t accomplished in that, in getting my education because I thought that I really couldn’t do it,” she said.

Walker said the program filled a vital need for foster youth who often do not have positive role models.

“People take for granted what you know because you’re parents taught you and you think you do it naturally but really someone taught you,” she said. “I had to be taught how to go to my teachers office, how to read a schedule, I had even be encouraged with words.”

She said the program has given her the skills to continue her education and develop long term plans that include a desire to open her own transitional housing facility someday. “Programs like this set up an amazing foundation, so that I can find my greatness so that I can be great, even through all my trials and tribulations, they taught me how to be better, how to speak out and how I can be worthwhile,” she said.

Spencer encouraged citizens to engage with foster youth.

“Really get to know these girls, please do, because they have so many goals and dreams and they’re so beautiful and I’m just so encouraged by that,” she said.

YWCA Santa Monica/Westside is a nonprofit organization serving more than 2,500 women and girls in the area. Their mission is to empower women through programs and services that target all ages, income levels, and socioeconomic levels.

Julia Miele, Executive Director of the Santa Monica YWCA, said working with foster children is part of their ongoing mission and that more institutions, such as schools, are realizing they have a population of emancipated foster kids that need additional services in order to thrive. She said the YWCA’s program helped provide a focal point for others interested in helping.

“The presence of a facility like this really lets the community and the population know we are here to give them the support they need to become the women they need to be,” she said.

Visit www.smywca.org for more information on YWCA programs.

matt@smdp.com

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