Thursday, December 13, 2007

Voice Our Independent Choices for Emancipation Support

Napa foster care group builds a dream house
Ryan, David. Napa Valley Register, Dec. 4, 2007.

At 1801 Oak Street in Napa, the children of the foster care system are finally getting a home of their own.

Voice Our Independent Choices for Emancipation Support, the two-year-old Napa nonprofit group, is busy putting the final touches on a remodel of the first two floors of a Victorian house just across the street from Fuller Park.

For the past 20 Saturdays, 200 volunteers have teamed up with local contractor Steve Carlson to knock down walls, install a kitchenette and rework computer wiring in an effort to make the house more comfortable as a home-like space for the VOICES crew.

The house is a far cry from the cramped office park off Soscol Avenue the group used to inhabit, and the group's move from its old location symbolizes the growth it has enjoyed as a nonprofit. Already it has helped more than 200 teens ease their transition from the foster care system to the real world with housing, education and employment programs.

"Not only are youth using VOICES' services, we are running the center, making decisions, leading and developing the programs," said Mitch Findley, assistant director of VOICES and a former foster youth, in a prepared statement. "We are respected and given responsibility. That is what makes the difference."

In addition, VOICES staff have traveled the country, preaching the benefits of youth-run care for emancipated foster youth. VOICES is the first program of its kind in the country.

Now with the new home, the group hopes to help even more foster youth than before in ways it couldn't quite do out of an office park.

"The whole point of this community build (of the VOICES headquarters) is to build community," said Alissa Gentille, VOICES program director. "So I hope young people can come into this building and feel a sense of family and home and comfort when they're going through a really challenging transition."

That sense is important. Sometimes, the youth who come to VOICES for services find the camaraderie and sense of family they've missed. Other times, clients are homeless, aged-out foster youth who store some of their belongings at VOICES. Now in the new space they can also do their laundry and fix themselves something to eat.

There are about 80,000 foster youth in the state, and Napa has about 100 at any given time. Studies have shown that foster youth who have aged out of the system -- which happens in many cases on their 18th birthday -- face more challenges than other teens. Often they have emotional difficulties or developmental problems caused by having bounced from home to home during their time in the system.

As VOICES grows, it is also trying to find a way to start another VOICES-like group in another county. Merced, Shasta and Los Angeles have been mentioned as possible sites, Gentille said.

On Wednesday, the group will host more than 200 guests at its new location in a kind of open house.

"We work hard together, laugh together, cry together and we celebrate together just like all good families do," Gentille said in a prepared statement. "That's what our Dec. 5 event is all about: celebrating our family and a year's worth of transformations."


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