For scores of Central Florida foster teens who turn 18 each year, aging out of the state’s custody means no place to live, no job, no drivers license and no transportation.
Although teen unemployment is at historically high levels, for foster youths the rate has been reported as high as 85 percent, and many end up homeless, in jail or on public assistance.
That’s why local nonprofit agencies are teaming with foster-care officials to get them the internships and job-mentoring programs that are typically a rite of passage for other kids.
Several employers — including Panera Bread, Westgate Resorts and Orlando Senior Health Network — already work with such teens. But Workforce Central Florida will approach others to join a new federally funded pilot project that will cover training and three months of salaries and benefits for foster youths.
“We’re looking to manufacturing, we’re looking to hospitality, we’re looking to health care, and we’re looking to where we can align the youth with the right opportunities,” said Workforce President and CEO Pamela Nabors.
Every year, about 170 kids age out of the foster-care system in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.
“These kids are in foster care because the adults in their lives have failed them,” said Joe Kilsheimer, an ApopkaCity Council member who chairs the City of Life Foundation — a nonprofit organization that pushed Workforce to address the issue. “They belong to all of us. And if they’re channeled in the right direction, they can become happy, productive, taxpaying citizens.”
As evidence, there is Nicole Rodriguez, who was placed in an Orlando foster-care group home at 14. When she aged out of care at 18, she had no job, no money and no choice but to return to the family once deemed unfit to care for her. She eventually spent time living out of a car.
But because she had learned job skills in her final year of foster care and had a mentor through City of Life, she was able to land a job at Orlando Senior Health Network, and she enrolled in Valencia. Now 22, she has been promoted, owns a car, is four classes shy of a degree — and just signed a mortgage on a home in east Orange County.
“It was a hard mountain to climb, but it’s possible,” she said. “Foster kids are the same as anyone else, and they need the same chances as anyone else.”
Sometimes, though, they need a little more guidance. Few have had summer or part-time jobs. Their lives often are filled with the instability of frequent moves and changing schools. They may never have learned how to dress for the workplace or developed decent communication skills.
The local franchise of Panera Bread discovered the obstacles after launching a foster-youth employment program three years ago with a simple group orientation, some basic instructions — and not much more.
“We went way too hard way too fast and soon fell right on our face,” said Eryn Catter, director of public relations for the franchise. “We [quickly] found ourselves with only a handful of these employees left.”
A year ago, the company revamped the program to include more one-on-one time with the foster youths to determine what each needed. Transportation turned out to be a major hurdle, and in many cases the teens couldn’t afford their work uniforms. The company started a fundraising initiative to help.
The changes are working.
“We hope to move forward and hire more [foster youths] this year,” Catter said.
Workforce plans to start slowly.
Gerard Glynn, an attorney, longtime child-welfare advocate and City of Life adviser, said the most important elements are having one stable adult in the teens’ lives and simply giving them that first chance.
“We don’t want them to continue to be dependent on government,” Glynn said. “We want to teach them to get up and show up. So we emphasize getting that first job, not getting a forever job. Once they do that, they can learn the skills to work on their forever job.”
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5503. Employers interested in joining the Workforce pilot program can call 407-531-1200.