Many youth move into their first abode with no furniture and only an air mattress upon which to sleep. With no existing resources to provide household essentials like furniture, linens and kitchenware, First Beginnings provides youth in or aging out of foster care with everything they need for their first home.
The article is reproduced below in case you missed it. Thanks to the Democrat for sharing our program with their readers.
Whitney Baptista smiles as she looks around her room. From the burgundy chairs to the bed covered with pillows, it is all hers, and as a foster youth, something she didn't think would happen. Thanks to the 1st Beginnings project, it did.
"It's me. I like to customize my room and I didn't think I would be able to. Stuff is expensive and like other foster youth, I don't really have support and can't afford it," says Baptista. "Being able to get this stuff means the world."
The 1st Beginning project, a project created and run by the Guardian ad Litem program and its nonprofit, Child Advocates II, ensures foster youth who are going out on their own are able furnish their first place and make it a home.
The Guardian ad Litem program advocates for abused and neglected children. Its volunteers and staff recognized a gap with its transitioning youth. Youth who are aging out of foster care or going into their own home do not have the resources to set themselves up in their own place.
"We want to make sure these kids are taken care of. Having to sleep on an air mattress with no other furniture or basic household items is not OK," says Guardian ad Litem Circuit Director Deborah Moore.
Moore, along with the program's Independent Living Committee, worked to create a program to fill the gap and ensure all youth like Baptista would have a place to get what they need for their first home.
"The 1st Beginnings project helps them with the essentials. It is a foundation. It makes their place somewhere where they can feel at home," says Guardian ad Litem child advocate and Independent Living Committee member LaSharonte Williams. "It helps them feel like a part of the community, that they are no longer outsiders."
With the help of StorQuest Self Storage, which donated a storage unit, the Guardian ad Litem program was able to create a sort of store. The program collects donations of new and like new furniture and new household items and stores them. Youth are then able to get what they need. Many times a volunteer will load a trailer and deliver it to the youth.
"It's thrilling. These youth are just amazed that they can have anything there for free. It's gratifying seeing their smiles and knowing you are making a child who has been through a lot happy," said Guardian ad Litem child advocate and Independent Living Committee member Stuart Zirin.
If the storage unit doesn't have what the youth needs, the Guardian program is able to purchase it through funds collected for the 1st Beginnings project.
As the project has grown in the last year, the program has been able to help more and more youth. From beds to sheets to vacuum cleaners to wall decorations, the Guardian program continues to meet the needs of its young adults.
"We want it new or like new. We want to get our youth off to a little better start. It gives them a sense of empowerment," said Guardian ad Litem child advocate and Independent Living Committee member Ken DeCerchio. "They haven't had a lot of choice in their life. Choice is important."
Baptista loves the chairs she was able to choose. Even the colors mean something to her.
"The burgundy represents the past and then on top is the brown and green embroidery, which represents the future and how far I can go. The chairs support me like the program where they came from," says Baptista.
Baptista, who has been in the child welfare system since she was two, says she is grateful not only for the furnishings, but the support of the Guardian program. She says it was her Guardian ad Litem advocate who taught her to drive, helped her move in and always checks up on her.
"Before I didn't have someone to go to and I didn't have faith in myself. They gave me faith. Showed me people do care. Showed me I am somebody that is worth it," says Baptista, who starts Tallahassee Community College in the fall and is part of Florida Youth Shine, a program that advocates for foster youth. "Sometimes foster youth can feel forgotten and not cared for. This project shows us people do care and think of us. All I can say is thank you."
The community has embraced the 1st Beginnings project. Akerman Law firm has supported the project during their last two annual days of giving. Another supporter is Killearn United Methodist Church's iServe group. The group created the Sweet Dreams project that provides beds to youths in the program.
"It was an easy choice. We want to help our community and what is more important than helping a child," said John Cousins, who heads up iServe.
Cousins enlisted the Living Harvest, which helps rehabilitate former incarcerated inmates. The Living Harvest Thrift store, which recently moved to its new location, is working with the program to help meet the needs of the transitioning youth. New mattresses are high on their list of needs.
"It all fits in. We want to rebuild lives," says Founder and Director Dale White. "Moving on to adulthood, it is important they start out right. They are literally starting out on their own with nothing, no resources. If we can help them out, help them get on their feet, it is something we want to do."
Moore hopes that with community support, the project will continue to help youth transition into adulthood and their first homes. For the youth, it is more than just a bed, dresser, sheets. It is the start of the next chapter of life, a chapter that hopefully will be filled with success and stability, something many have not had before.
"Like we say, it is about making that first place their first home," said Moore.
For more information, please visit www.gal2.org or call 850-606-1218.
Sara Blumenthal is the volunteer recruiter for the Guardian ad Litem program.