Students in Foster Care Honored for Successes

The Ocala Star Banner featured the Independent Living Graduation Event. Thank you Andy Fillmore for coming out and recognizing the hard work of these youth. To read the article and view pictures from the event click here.

Eighteen young adults who believed in themselves and graduated from educational programs over the last year, some after nearly a decade in foster homes, recently were treated to an elegant Evening with the Stars.

The Ocala-based nonprofit Kids Central, Inc., provides care and guidance for abused, neglected and abandoned children and their families in Marion, Citrus, Hernando, Lake and Sumter counties, which mirrors the Fifth Judicial Circuit. Kids Central also offers the Independent Living, or IL, program, which provides guidance and support for youth who “age out” of the foster home system at 18 and are starting out in their own in life. That program extends to age 23.

“Graduating high school and other education is a huge accomplishment for these young adults,” said Nicole Pulcini Mason, Director of Community Affairs for Kids Central.

On Friday night, the red carpet was rolled out at the Ocala Ballroom in the Sovereign Building downtown in celebration of 10 high school graduates, seven students who earned their GED and one graduate of a vocational technical program, all in the 2013-2014 cycle.

“I thought this night would never come,” said Janice Groom, 20, who, along with her twin sister Jessica Groom, graduated from Crystal River High School in 2013. “I always knew in my heart we would make it,” Jessica Groom said.

The twins went into foster care at age 14 when their father was deported to El Salvador for improper immigration papers and their mother, Dawn, was ill. The girls stuck with it through their troubled teen years while living in private and group foster homes. Janice said she preferred private homes while Jessica liked the structure of a group home. The twins, and one of their brothers, were the first members of their immediate family to graduate from high school. The sisters saved enough money to travel to El Salvador last December to visit their father. Their mother died in October. The girls are attending the College of Central Florida in Lecanto. “The (Independent Living) program gave us opportunity and was like the (parental) guidance we never had,” Janice Groom said. “We were taught about finances and other life skills.”

Rashad Jones heads Epic Youth Services, a private company that contracts through Kids Central, Inc., to work with young adults on how to survive everyday living. “I call it Life Skills 101,” Jones said. “We have 12 monthly sessions with the person and stress practical information about healthy relationships and personal safety. We teach youth how to be independent and self-reliant and not rely on others, which might get them into a situation where someone could take advantage of them.” Jones had a year of sessions with the Groom twins. The twins recently purchased a car for $900, an accomplishment they credit to their training from Jones. Both women have worked in the fast food industry.

Independent Living program supervisor Hannah Rios said  there are currently about 40 17-year-olds and about 70 18- to 23-year-olds in the program across the five-county area.

Lindsey Tew, a case worker for the Independent Living program, said the Groom twins did a “180 degree turnaround” with their lives. “They struggled at first but now live in a nice house on their own. It’s awesome,” said Tew, who also helped the twins gain admission to CF. Tew said the State of Florida has tuition-waiver programs for children in foster homes.

Orlando Tech graduate Brittany Martorello, 19, said she had been “abused a lot.” Martorello said she was in foster care at age 14 in Lake County and lived in six different foster homes until she aged out and moved to the Faine House, a transitional home in Winter Park that was founded by football player Jeff Faine in partnership with the Children’s Home Society. The facility is for youth leaving the foster care system, according to the Faine House Facebook page.

“Now, I’m on a television show called ‘Emotional MoJo,’ and I’ve been on CNN and WESH in Orlando telling my story,” Martorello said. She said her success has been due to a mixture of her own efforts and help from others. Martorello’s Independent Living coordinator, Louis New, said he is the product of foster homes in New York and “can youth relate to the youth.” “I know what these youth are going through,” New said. “Sometimes they build a wall and have a chip on their shoulders and self-sabotage. You have to want to only help and not judge.”

Scarlett Howington, 19, aged out of foster care after seven years. She earned her GED in 2013. She is studying health information technology at CF, has her own apartment and car, and works at McDonald’s. Evie Troche with Kids Central, Inc., was an independent living coordinator for Howington. “We grew a relationship. I made it clear I was there to help,” Troche said. “Scarlett had some self-doubt but, for example, when school grades came in, she did well.”

Shalonda McHenry Sims, director of Operations for Kids Central, said Howington was “very determined and very respectful.” Sims said Kids Central has a high rating within the state for youth educational attainment.

Motivational speaker Laymon Hicks of Riverview, author of “A Treasure Chest of Motivation: 8 Jewels of Wisdom for a Young Adult’s Success,” delivered a rousing talk to the graduates, telling them to “get up, get out and go get it,” referring to their goals.

Independent Living coordinator Tiffany Butler has been working with Kids Central, Inc., for about five years. She gave an example of a young girl who doubted she would ever attend college then became excited about the idea after Butler took her on a tour of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.

“You have to have a passion for working with young people,” Butler said. “I engage them, we share stories and we grow together. I always tell them to put God first.”