InspiREAD: Championing Change for Homeless Teens and Youth Aging Out of Foster Care
This is a guest post from Echo Garrett, Co-Founder/Board Chair of the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative.
Advocate for Underserved Youth/Wife/Mom/Speaker/Journalist/Co-Author of “My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change,” winner of the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ 2013 Arlene Eisenberg Writing that Makes a Difference award given every three years to the book that’s made the biggest difference in people’s lives. Check out her blog: aResoundingEcho.com and contribute to Orange Duffel Bag Initiative’s RocketHub campaign http://bit.ly/19udEOb!
Here’s her story:
In 2010, Sam Bracken and I launched the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative, a 501c3 nonprofit that does certified life plan coaching with homeless, foster care and high poverty teens. To my knowledge, we are the only ones in the U.S. taking this approach to help our nation’s most vulnerable young people.
When our kids graduate our 12-week program, they get a laptop computer to help them bridge the digital divide. More importantly, they get ongoing advocacy from our family of advocates to help them overcome the many and sometimes seemingly impossible barriers that pop up as they work their plan for educational and career success.
Sam was homeless at age 15, and the name of ODBI comes from the fact that when he earned a football scholarship to Georgia Tech, everything he owned fit in an orange duffel bag. When he came to Tech, officials had no idea that they were getting a homeless teenager. When Sam and I looked at the attitudes and crazy barriers our teens and young adults face today, we were disappointed that so little progress had been made in the 30 years since he graduated Georgia Tech.
Sam knew from personal experience that it’s not too late for a teen – even one who has grown up in horrific circumstances – to dramatically change his or her life for the better. He made the decision at age 13 that he didn’t want to be like the rest of his drug and alcohol addicted family. His help came from lots of caring adults – the teacher who figured out he just need glasses when he was 13 and got him out of special education classes; the family that took him in after his mom abandoned him; the doctor who helped him send out his football films; Coach Bill Curry, who gave him the base for the transformational change in his life; a couple at church who helped direct him spiritually and opened their home to him over the college breaks when he was in danger of being homeless; and the list goes on and on. He created what I call a “family of the heart.”
More than 40% of the homeless in our country are age 18 or under. More than 1 million kids in K-12 are homeless. About 25,000 foster children age out of the foster care system each year. Most of them are 18-year-olds without one caring adult in their lives.
Other numbers are just as disturbing: 65% of children in foster care drop out of high school; 6% go to college; and less than 2% of that number graduate with a four year college degree; and 65% of the nation’s homeless have spent time in foster care while 75% of our prisons are filled with people who were in foster care at one point.
Study after study shows that those who age out of foster care each year are at high risk for homelessness, incarceration, sex slavery, drug and alcohol addiction, and early death. By the time former foster youth reach the age of 24, they have the highest rate of unemployment of any group in the nation with the exception of people with disabilities.
Our teens and young adults are our invisible homeless. We as communities have largely abdicated the responsibility to take care of the poor and most vulnerable among us to the Government. Nelson Mandela said, “"There can be no keener revelation of society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.“
So why am I telling you all of this? Because what Team Orange – our brilliant officers President Mike Daly and Vice President Diana Black, executive and life coaches, advocates, board members, volunteers, community partners, sponsors and donors – have created in just three years works. Our evidence-based program improves critical thinking. That means that our teens learn how to make better choices.
More than 80% of our teens have graduated high school or are on track to do so. Many of our 300 ODBI grads are now in college. What’s the secret? They have connections – people who care about them and cheer for them. They belong. We give them love and help them create their life plans.
How can you help? Join Team Orange and help us create a New Year’s Revolution in 2014.
Give voice to those who rarely get heard by sharing this blog.
Donate to ODBI on our crowdfunding campaign http://bit.ly/19udEOb and challenge 10 friends to do the same.
Help bridge the digital divide by donating new laptops or tablets.
Consider becoming a foster parent.
Volunteer with us and help our community-based solution go nationwide.
Contact your legislators about the idiocy of kicking teens out of the system.
Volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.
Urge your faith-based community to get involved in our kids’ lives on a consistent basis if it isn’t already.
Show our kids that you believe in their futures.
Go to www.theODBI.org to learn more.
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