The black and white suitcase on Nicole Marchman's bed was crammed with Beltway-worthy clothes she'd scooped up at discount prices. Marchman, 28, a recent University of South Florida honors graduate, was heading to the nation's capital for a two-month internship. This was her life almost a dozen foster homes and 17 years since a social worker took her from her parents' house clutching a black garbage bag stuffed with her belongings. She was 11.
Sitting in her Clearwater apartment, Marchman spoke matter-of-factly of the serial sexual abuse she suffered from her father, a cousin and her husband, of uncaring foster parents and of stealing food when she was hungry. Sometimes she ran away. She considered suicide. Later, though, a judge would give her custody of her twin sisters and she would become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
Marchman beat the odds that most foster children face, said Roy Miller, president of Children's Campaign Inc., an advocacy and watchdog group in Tallahassee.
"About half have completed high school,'' he said. "Homelessness is persistent and after years of hardship in the foster care system, they are often impacted by depression and substance abuse. Less than half have jobs, and a majority of young women leaving foster care will give birth within four years.''
Ready for Life, a St. Petersburg nonprofit agency, is working to avert such situations in Pinellas County. The organization collaborates with other agencies to prepare foster children for adulthood by helping them with basics like getting a driver's license and opening a bank account. It also helps former foster youths find housing, continue their education, and navigate health and legal issues.
Given the organization's limited resources, it is turning to volunteers like Marchman to pass along the lessons she has learned.
"We're unique in the sense that we're very small in staff and heavily community- and youth-driven,'' said Kathy Mize, the organization's only full-time employee.
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The agency got its start last year, holding youth focus groups and "really listening'' to determine the needs of teens "aging out" of foster care on their 18th birthday. Modeled on Hillsborough's Connected by 25 program, the Pinellas agency was the idea of former St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, now president of Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. He turned to a couple of friends, businessmen Gerry Hogan and Bud Risser, to get the program off the ground.
In the past 18 months, Ready for Life has worked with businesses, civic groups, individuals and other agencies to help more than 150 young people. It's now part of a new, multiagency endeavor to create a teen education center for former and current foster kids ages 16 to 24. Expected to open this fall, it will be housed by the Children's Home Society, at 2731 13th Ave. N, close to public transportation. Location was an important consideration. "Over 85 percent of our youth aging out of foster care are in St. Petersburg or south Pinellas County,'' Mize said.
A similar center is being planned for north Pinellas County by the Junior League of Clearwater-Dunedin, said April Putzulu, spokeswoman for Eckerd Youth Alternatives.
The south county center, which will offer tutoring and classes such as financial literacy, cooking and home maintenance, also will provide recreational activities, computers, a kitchen and laundry facilities. Organizations involved will include Family Resources, Eckerd Community Alternatives, Gulf Coast Community Care, Directions for Mental Health and Camelot Community Care.
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The program also will offer peer mentoring by former foster kids like Marchman and 20-year-old Shane Villalpando. Villalpando knows what it's like to be homeless, though he prefers to use the euphemism "on the road.''
"I was still going to my extracurricular activities like football and weight lifting. My good friends knew,'' said Villalpando, then a student at Ridgewood High School in Pasco County.
"My friends would bring me over to their house to let me chill or something. Other than that, I would eat at school. That was the main reason I stayed in school.''
He dropped out and ended up in transitional housing. Ready for Life helped him get a driver's license and GED classes. The agency also linked him with a mentor and gave him a job.
Another teen mentor will be Cesiley Freeman. Weeks short of graduating from Gibbs High School and 61/2 months' pregnant, she found herself without a home when her stepfather gave up his parental rights. She was sent to St. Petersburg's Alpha House.
Her baby, Jayden, who had long QT syndrome, a disorder of the heart's electrical activity, lived for three months and six days. She now works at Publix, a job Ready for Life helped her get.
Mize, of Ready for Life, marvels at Freeman's resilience. She has seen it in Villalpando and Marchman as well, and said they're eager to help other foster care youths. Marchman hopes to do so on a national level. At Mize's suggestion, she applied for a Washington, D.C., internship with the Congressional Coalition Institute on Adoption, which raises awareness about foster care and international adoption issues. She could offer succinct observations about foster parents and the children they take into their homes.
"We're coming with baggage,'' she said. "A lot of them don't know how to handle it.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.