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 www.deluz4kids.org, 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 www.4kidsfirst.org.