Special to Valley News
Advocating for the foster youth of Southern California is an initiative without end, yet comfortingly, the dedicated leadership and staff behind Rancho Damacitas Children and Family Services are tirelessly committed to the cause of this growing population. Over three decades, the nonprofit has operated multiple residential care sites to house foster youth, and the driving focus for 2016 is the expansion of its reach and services.
Partnering with Lennar Homes, new fundraising efforts will center on beginning construction of a new home for Project Independence. Currently operating out of two off-site apartments, the transitional program for teens 18 and older relies on live-in mentors to help with personal goals i.e. finding careers, pursuing higher education and purchasing a car or one’s own apartment moving towards full independence. Balancing the realities of adulthood, such as rent, bills, household chores and a social life, is an essential element of character building that mentors know their young housemates need to learn.
Nowhere can the vital impact of this awareness and sensitivity be better seen than in the story of Maria, a bright light in the Damacitas community for overcoming exceptional obstacles. Currently estranged from a mother who turned to prostitution and drug dealing to provide for her family, Maria spent her earliest years in search of stability. Social services intervened to relieve 10-year-old Maria of the unfortunate responsibility of shielding her younger siblings from drugs, their mother’s dangerous clientele, and any awareness of their family’s financial struggle.
Although happily reunited a few years later, the difficult realization came for Maria that her mother would usher her toward a similar path as her own. Alerted by a neighbor to Maria’s two pregnancies by age seventeen with an older man, social services came for a final visit. Another year would pass in the comfort of a new foster family before Maria finally experienced the sense of normalcy that eluded her as a child. Along with safety, she was happy to gain loving “grandparents” to help in raising her children.
Today, Maria holds no ill will toward her mother, whom she feels had not known any better, but Maria is determined to keep her own children out of poverty’s grip. While pursuing a nursing degree, Maria works to save up to move out of her Project Independence home. When asked about the program’s influence on her ability towards self-sufficiency, Maria stressed that “this program means being able to find yourself while being surrounded with a great support system and achieving when everyone told you you couldn’t.” She is resolute that her former foster parents and extended “family” at Rancho Damacitas will prepare her for life’s changes, not just materially but with practical advice and unconditional love.
Despite seeing a happy resolution to one chapter, for Kristi Piatkoswki, Director of Development at Rancho Damacitas, it is clear that Maria’s story and that many others are not over. Piatkowski emphasizes that “the prevention of homelessness, criminal activity and other risks associated with transitioning out of foster care were imperative for children like Maria who have experienced trauma and is the catalyst of Project Independence’s mission for change.”
More homes mean that even larger numbers of young adults will have access to the mentorship network and a place to return to when needing a sense of familiarity. Every child faces challenges in their transition to adulthood but the fundamental ingredient for success is the confidence that only encouragement from, and open dialogue with, trusted adults and a loving community can bring.
In that spirit, Rancho Damacitas will be hosting its Champion’s Luncheon on Sept. 23, as an opportunity for community members to hear from the children themselves and learn of the contributions of trusted partner organizations. Event highlights will include keynote speaker and retired LA Ram Reggie Doss and honoring Lennar Homes with the Visionary Award for its long-time commitment to sheltering not just foster youth, but the homeless and vulnerable populations. The event will be free to its exclusive guests through the generosity of sponsors, including US Bank, Rancho Christian School and many other community organizations. The event is sure to open eyes and hearts to the incredible difference the public’s contributions can make and provide the spark for lasting advocacy.
If interested in donating, volunteering your time and services to Project Independence or for ways to support the event and Rancho Damacitas Children and Family Services, please contact Kristi Piatkowski (951- 302-2317 x221) or visit the Rancho Damacitas website www.4kidsfirst.org.