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Moving on, moving up


Originally published in:
Miami Herald
05/30/2006

ELINOR J. BRECHER
A nonprofit group is creating homes in comfortable neighborhoods for young women who are 'aging out' of foster care
Rachel Johnson stood outside the garden apartment that will be her next home as a Metrorail train rattled along nearly overhead.

Nearby, a gardener wielded a roaring leaf blower.

Noisy?

"It's better than gunshots," Johnson said.

For the past two months, Johnson, 21, has been living in a shoe box of an apartment on a bleak Liberty City street, the fifth place she has rented since turning 18, the age at which the state of Florida ends custody of foster children.

Come fall, though, she will be in a middle-class neighborhood, The Roads, in a newly renovated apartment, thanks to Casa Valentina, a nonprofit group that creates housing for young women who have "aged out" of foster care.

The group expects the Roads home will be the first of several small residences in well-kept, secure neighborhoods, available to an estimated 100 young women a year in Miami-Dade County.

The need is urgent. About 40 percent of aged-out foster children become homeless, prey to drugs, prostitution and crime.

"Imagine being alone in Miami, after being in 20, 30 foster homes, and somehow you're going to make it?" said Sharon Langer, 59, a Casa Valentina cofounder.

For Johnson, taken at age 4 from her mother, who ultimately lost custody of eight of her nine children, the group also addresses emotional needs.

"I hope it's somewhere I can move in and hang pictures on the wall," she said. 'I want to get cozy. I want to get comfortable, and I just want to know that, `OK, Rachel, you can make yourself a home.' "

That's impossible at her place in a mustard-yellow cinder-block fortress cut up into airless flats, fronting a parking lot, with iron bars on the windows.

Johnson obsessively rearranges her few pieces of furniture in the two tiny rooms that cost $575 a month: a faux-leather sofa and chair, a worn dresser and nightstand, and a couple of shelves, because nothing in her life has ever been permanent. By contrast, the future Casa Valentina is a taupe-colored, mid-1950s structure with original terrazzo floors, candy-colored bathroom tiles and hardwood kitchen cabinets.

Residents, who will be able to stay for two years, will pay about $300 a month.

The building belongs to CHARLEE, a child-welfare agency that contracts with the state to care for foster children. It had been a group home for teens. CHARLEE, having concluded that foster teens do better with families, is partnering with Casa Valentina to renovate the building and operate it for at least five years. Work has begun on the five studios and one-bedroom units.

People have suggested that Casa Valentina could get more bang for its housing buck in marginal areas, Langer said.

"But that's exactly what we're trying to avoid. We're trying to put them in areas that are safe, that anyone would put their daughters in."

Casa Valentina was born 18 months ago when playwright Eve Ensler was in South Florida visiting her friend Sharon Socol. [V-Day note: Following that meeting, a V-Day Miami group was formed. In November 2005, they staged a benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues as a fundraiser for Casa Valentina.]

She told Socol, Langer and others that she would donate her play The Vagina Monologues as a fundraiser if they had a good cause. They did.

As director of the Legal Aid Society of Greater Miami, Langer 'lives this issue every day, and said, `This is what we have to do,' " according to co-founder Claudia Kitchens, executive director of the Women's Fund of Miami-Dade County.

The founders expected to raise $10,000 with the production. They raised $195,000, and now have $1 million in the kitty, all from donations.

The cause barely requires a pitch, Kitchens said.

"People have contacted us to say they heard about it and offer money, which does not happen in fundraising."

Casa Valentina is more than housing; its founders envision a network of emotional support through mentoring for youngsters who may never have had either.

"It's a sense of stability and safety, which is a real issue for these young women, and an opportunity to go beyond the basic necessities -- to work on creating a life rather than just existing," Kitchens said. The relationship between Langer and Johnson is the template. They met when the Department of Children & Families tried to revoke Johnson's $892 monthly Road to Independence scholarship, the only government cash support available to aged-out youngsters up to age 23.

To keep it, recipients must be full-time students.

Johnson, taking 12 credit hours at Miami Dade College and working part time, had dropped two courses. Langer successfully appealed the DCF's decision, and they bonded.

Now Johnson works part time at Legal Aid, and accompanies Langer to Casa Valentina fundraising functions, where she tells bits of her story: No father. Put in state custody because of abuse, which she neither recalls nor believes. Shunted from foster homes to group homes. Running away.

Discussing her future at one meeting, she grew teary. In 17 months, when she turns 23, all benefits cease.

"Aging out was scary," she said. Turning 23 "is like a second aging out. It scares me."

That's where Casa Valentina will help, Langer said.

"What we'd like is to develop an exit plan for our girls," she said. "Two years go by very fast."

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