A. Garcia / SFVS

Joyce Harmon, CEO and Founder of WE LIFT LA.

Each year in California more than 4,000 youths 18 or order — including 1,400 or more in Los Angeles County alone —  will “age out” of the foster care system.

While they retain some services, their age can prevent them from staying in the homes where they’ve found shelter. And the risks of them falling through the cracks increase exponentially at this stage.

The figures are startling. Seventy percent of all California State Prison inmates are former foster youth; 36 percent become homeless within 18 months of aging out; 51 percent are unemployed, and 40 percent depend on public assistance following their emancipation.

Joyce Harmon, CEO and Founder of the nonprofit organization WE LIFT LA, Inc., is hoping a “village” can help former foster care young women not only grow up further, but excel and transition into independence.

This Saturday June 6, the organization will hold the grand opening of “Building a Village”—  a home near California State University Northridge that would house five college students who have gone through the foster care system and unbelievable hardships, and who simply need a hand in order to excel.

This is the first home of its kind in the San Fernando Valley for girls.

“The whole transition is to help them go on their own,” said Harmon, in describing the mission of this innovative set up for former foster youth. “We provide personal, supportive help where we love them and take care of them. We have to help raise them from 18- to 20-year-olds.”

For the past five years, WE LIFT LA has helped more than 100 such young adults make the transition into independence by providing them with life skills, job readiness and stable housing.

While most agencies focus on minors, Harmon said their focus is on those often in the most peril.

“These kids (18- to 25-years-old) really get dropped,” she said, noting these are often the most difficult of ages for former foster kids due to the difficulties they face.

Achieving independence is vital for this group, Harmon said, because they often lack stable jobs and support from family and friends.

On Their Own

Such is the case for Selena (who asks that her last name not be disclosed). Adopted at birth, she endured verbal and emotional abuse from her adoptive mother that caused PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) by the time she was a teenager.

The 19-year-old recalled a lot of name calling, yelling and negativity that left her emotionally scarred, and led to self-mutilation and suicidal thoughts.

Things were even worse for her younger brother and sister. Selena said they endured hits with spoons and belts, kneeling on rice grains, being forced to hold heavy books on top of their heads — even the burning of hands.

At 17, Selena, her sister and brother went into the foster care program.

She lived in three foster homes in the space of a couple of years. “It’s moving places, schools, a lot. There’s no consistency,” she said.

At one time Selena had to take two buses and travel for more than an hour just to reach Champs Charter High School in Van Nuys, where she graduated last year.

She finished her first year of college at Cal State University, Northridge having lived in the dorms, but finds it expensive and still lacking the “home environment” she wishes.

She’s one of the five women that will move into the home set up by WE LIFT LA.  Selena can’t wait; she’s already picked one of the rooms in the house and has decorated it with images she drew and placed on the walls. She’s secured a mattress, and hopes to make the house a “home” along with her roommates.

Selena said she likes the fact that they will be left alone in the house, with no chaperone to check up on them at all times. Harmon said there are rules about smoking, alcohol and drugs, as well as boys. There would be weekly visits to try and quell any problems that arise among the girls. Other than that, they will be on their own.

It’s part of the strategy for teaching them independence.

Selena recognizes that independence is being lenient “but not a free-for-all.”

The roommates each pay rent (with government assistance and jobs), the difference in fees depending on whether they share a room and bathroom. They will also provide their own food and do their own cooking, as well as do their own laundry. A washer and dryer are part of the fixtures at the home, which workers are trying to get ready before the grand opening.

“One of the things foster youth desire most is their own room and independence. If you’re 18, 19, 20, you don’t want an adult telling you what to do at all times,” Harmon said.

The residents can stay at the home until the age of 21.

By then, Harmon hopes the lessons learned at the house can translate into stable lives for them.

Selena, a mature, eloquent young woman, seems to be on her way there. She just finished her first year of college and has secured a paid internship at Warner Brothers for the summer. She’s studying communications and hopes to one day help foster youth.

The Vision

WE LIFT LA is supported exclusively by private donors. Harmon’s vision is that the house is joined by a center for older foster youth, to be built on the same property.

The plan is also for the girls to plant and tend a garden for their use, and even sell some produce at a farmer’s market. It could eventually develop into a commercial venture, where the youth there can learn financial and entrepreneurial skills.

For all that to happen, Harmon must raise at least $1.5 million. For now, the immediate needs are much more humble: bedding, kitchen utensils, gift cards so the five girls can buy things that they need as they move in.

“Every little bit helps,” Harmon notes.

To learn more about We Lift LA or to donate and help in their mission, visit www.weliftla.org.

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