Project Independence provides a new road home to at-risk youth

The De Luz Women’s Club is sponsoring a fundraiser for Project Independence, a transitional housing ministry of Rancho Damacitas Children and Family Services, to at-risk youth in the Valley. Courtesy photo
The De Luz Women’s Club is sponsoring a fundraiser for Project Independence, a transitional housing ministry of Rancho Damacitas Children and Family Services, to at-risk youth in the Valley. Courtesy photo

Bianca Hollins

Special to Valley News

When people hear the phrase “at-risk youth,” what comes to mind? Do they think of children and teens who are vulnerable to drugs, violence, disciplinary problems and exploitation? What about the successes?

Upending misconceptions about the potential of underserved children and teens is the goal of Project Independence, a Temecula-based transitional housing arm of the nonprofit Rancho Damacitas Children and Family Services. Ultimately, it is not just the adults who provide wisdom but the youth telling their stories that allows others to open their hearts and minds.

Take, for example, the pioneering Cara, whose name has been changed by request of the interviewee. She was the first girl to enter the program, becoming an example for her peers.

Growing up, Cara was given every reason not to trust those around her, she said. Her father’s imprisonment and mother’s long-term addiction, while pushing Cara into using and selling drugs as well, came at a time when most children are fighting the nervousness of entering junior high.

Following multiple run-ins with the law, the unstableness of the next few years meant she bounced between life on the streets and homeless shelters to group homes to eventual lockdown in a facility for juvenile offenders where the ultimate expectations were “silence and compliance,” Cara said. There was “no ability to speak up if you felt a punishment was unfair or talk of your future outside the facility,” she said. The strict rules and lack of community weighed on Cara, who in a prior time of overdose had called on God to give her a sign that her hope of a better future was warranted.

It was then that a social worker advocated for Cara to enter Project Independence. That advocacy was just the start she needed, she said. It was the loving determination of her social worker, Belinda Alvarez and Project Independence program director, Steve Liapis, which helped propel Cara out of her distrust. Released from the facility on the cusp of adulthood, Cara heard her mentors say, “I believe in you” for the first time, which “helped transform my opinion of myself as incapable of being a leader” to “knowing and appreciating that I could have the trust of adults and my peers and guide others as she succeeded at her own goals,” Cara said.

For Cara, the home she shared with her live-in mentors, Ashley and Pete, was the first environment where she “felt loved, safe and respected,” and it made her “mentoring and protecting impulse come alive for the other youth who entered the program” after her, Cara said. Simply “being allowed to leave her room without having to ask for permission” was a seemingly small freedom, but one that made an incredible boost to her sense of dignity, she said. Likewise, for a girl who was “traumatized by previous attacks while homeless, making everyday acts such as taking the bus a terrifying idea,” Cara said the mentors’ aid in preparing her for driver’s education, in signing up for college courses and in securing jobs to earn her own savings fund and increase her mobility were vital resources that once seemed unimaginable to her. Cara doubted “at first that the kindness didn’t have a catch, but ultimately was inspired to trust” when things such as family dinners were instituted, bringing the children closer together, and birthday and holiday celebrations that she had never known before were made an everyday tradition in her life.

Today, Project Independence has grown to include more than 20 young adults, and with its continued help, Cara is working and pursuing a degree to become an ultrasound technician. She said she wants to pay it forward and inspire others to appreciate how their generosity can make all the difference in someone else’s life.

To show support for Cara and fellow youth of Project Independence, visit, the community is invited to purchase tickets for “Cowboys and Cars 4 Kids,” a fundraising event hosted by the De Luz Women’s Club. The funds raised by the event will benefit the construction of the program’s newest transitional housing, “Honor Home” in Murrieta. The event will include a classic car show, live country entertainment by Kanan Road, a casino, great food, beer and wine vendors and a silent auction which includes a trip to Hawaii and even a car. For more information on donating to Rancho Damacitas Children and Family Services, contact Kristi Piatkowski at (951) 302-2317, ext. 221 or visit

3 Responses to "Project Independence provides a new road home to at-risk youth"

  1. Cinzia H.   October 24, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    Warning – There are numerous braisen break-ins and thefts being reported to the Riverside Sheriff’s Department. Rancho Damacitas residents are being blamed. The residents at this group home are allowed to come and go at will. Nextdoor Neighbor posted the following on October 23, after a neighbood meeting.

    Break Ins, Auto Theft, Vandalism, Trespassing, Other… I have reported this information to the police.

    About 50 Wine Country Residents who live near Rancho Damacitas attendeded an URGENT meeting this morning (Sunday, October 22nd) to discuss the continued crime that has elevated in recent weeks that is associated with Rancho Damacitas residents.

    Although the Mission that Rancho Damacitas founded and was principled off of over 30 years ago is wonderful and we can all agree on that, it is not the same today. I have personally spoken to the CEO and several members of the Staff over the past 72 Hours and the information that they have provided me is consistent with what the Wine Country Community has been experiencing over the past few weeks and months.

    • Multiple Homes have been broken into and property stolen or vandalized.
    • Multiple Cars have been stolen from nearby residences and crashed in the City of Temecula, including a car owned and operated by Rancho Damacitas which was ultimately crashed as well jeopardizing every residents of Temecula and your Children.
    • Confirmed Vandalism is taking place at nearby homes and is being done by residents of the facility and is known by the Executive’s and Staff of Rancho Damacitas.
    • Theft and Break-Ins are occurring at nearby homes.

  2. Kelly   November 13, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    The you tube video you posted we would like taken down. You posted pictures of our home and we have small children and our home is very distinctive and we do not want people coming in our quiet neighborhood! This is horrible. You didn’t let anyone know in the neighborhood what was going in. We all bought in this neighborhood because it was quiet and our kids could play on the street now they won’t be able to because of all the teens parking on the street

    • Alex Groves   November 14, 2017 at 9:26 pm

      Hi Kelly,

      I was hoping you might be able to give us a little more information about this and what the issue is. I’m not sure I understand what you’re referring to as far as a video. If you could kindly email [email protected], someone can look into this.

      Thanks much,
      Alex Groves
      Associate Editor


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.