Thursday, December 23, 2010

100 Strong for Teens in Foster Care

San Diego businessmen stand '100 Strong' for foster youths
Cadelago, Christopher. SignsOnSanDiego, Dec. 21, 2010.

ENCANTO — After spending more time in group homes than with relatives, this was supposed to be the year — finally — when the boy with blond shaggy hair and a soft spot for animals celebrated the holidays with a new family.

In the company of foster brothers and sisters, maybe he wouldn’t have to worry about being teased and punched. They’d exchange gifts and sit down to a festive dinner. Surrounded by family and friends, he said, maybe he wouldn’t feel so alone.

I “would have been in Carlsbad,” said Nicholas, 13, a resident at the Center for Positive Changes in Spring Valley. “But I got angry and did things I shouldn’t have … and they said I couldn’t live with that family … I worry that I’ll be in the system until I turn 18.”

On Sunday, Nicholas said he was skeptical when operators of the group home promised a holiday party with haircuts, gifts, lunch and the opportunity to network with business leaders for support, internships and eventually jobs.

“I’ve never had this before,” he said, shortly after arriving at Christmas on Imperial Avenue, the inaugural celebration sponsored by 100 Strong, a fledgling community group in southeastern San Diego. “I think that they are using the kindness of their hearts to give us these presents.”

The collective of businessmen has spent months promoting positive change by investing 100 percent — “not 97, or 98, or 99 percent” — of their energy into the community, co-founder Mario Lewis said. They support street fairs for networking, provide job training and mentorship for youths, and, more recently, work to calm the neighborhood after a fatal shooting.

After the slaying of a 25-year-old man in Oak Park, 100 Strong called for a cease-fire, marching across parts of southeastern San Diego and renaming the intersection of Euclid and Imperial avenues “The Four Corners of Life.” (It had long been known as The Four Corners of Death.)

They’ve knocked on 687 doors in five months, organizing community patrols and trying to inspire people to look out for their neighbors. The efforts generated meetings with county health officials to explore new initiatives to fight physiological problems and childhood obesity.

For its inaugural event on Sunday, 100 Strong targeted teens living in foster care, said Lewis, the owner of Imperial Barber Shop on Imperial Avenue near 65th Street.

“There’s Toys for Tots, and there’s Toys for Joy, but what about the kids, the teenagers, who need more than toys?” Lewis said. “Our goal was to find the most needy ones and then stay in touch with them beyond the holidays.”

The daylong event included free haircuts and hairstyling, a photo shoot by Image Seed Photography and lunch by Chef Rick Catering. The African American Genealogy Association, Bay Vista Fund, Ground-Up Youth Foundation and In the Pinc donated gift cards, digital music players, clothing and basketballs.

Michael Norris, a former photojournalist who now mentors young people out of his Image Seed studio, said it was important for foster youths to know that they’re supported. For Giovany, it represented an opportunity to solicit information about studying criminal justice in college for a career in law enforcement.

Giovany, 16, was born in La Puente and grew up in El Monte. Long a product of the foster-care system, he was transferred here when his mother got sober in San Diego County. He moved in with his family two years ago, but soon got into trouble for destroying property, he said.

Now back in a group home, he’s learning how to live independently and invited the opportunity to meet someone who could help down the road. “We have some programs, some support,” he said. “But I didn’t really expect nothing like this.”

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