Turning 18 is a milestone birthday for any teen but for youths in foster care, it's also a sharp line in the sand.
Teens "age out" of foster care when they become legal adults and, while there are some continuing services available, too many find themselves on their own - and ill-prepared for that transition.
That's where Footsteps to the Future, a local not-for-profit, steps in.
"We are an evidence-based mentoring program serving young women who are currently in foster care and those who have aged out of foster care," said Judi Woods, founder and executive director of the Lee County based program that got its start in 2001.
The program pairs mentors - women willing to commit to a minimum of 14 hours a month for two years - with young women still at risk to help them transition to self-sufficient adulthood.
Mentors provide emotional and practical support by phone, in person and at monthly gatherings to young women who may have trust issues or need some real life advice on continuing education, vocational training and finding a job.
Statistics show the need for such support services, Woods said.
"There is a statistic that is mind blowing," she said. "There is a report that says 600,000 children are in foster care. Of the teens that age out of the foster care system, only 30 percent have a high school diploma or a GED. That means that 70 percent of these kids don't have either. That equates to them not being able to get a job to support themselves; we know that education is the passport out of poverty."
Other numbers provided by Footsteps to the Future are equally disturbing: 50 percent of the teens who "age out" of foster care will fall prey to crime, drug and alcohol abuse, or homelessness with 25 percent becoming homeless within three years of leaving the system.
Seventy percent of those in prison nationwide spent time in foster care.
Footsteps' goals are multi-faceted but all are aimed at reducing those numbers by offering job readiness, leadership skills and education as alternatives to poor choices.
The "RAILS" upon which the program "rides" are responsibility, accountability, integrity, love and self-reliance.
Education is a key component.
"Our academic achievement program is set up with tutors and mentors that try to help these young women No. 1, set goals for school, and achieve those goals," Woods said.
"We have a very specialized tutoring program," she added. "One hundred percent of the girls in our tutoring program raised their GPA and the average GPA went up 32 percent. It's really amazing - where these girls were failing in school and not getting the marks they could, through the specialized tutoring program we have taught them how to study or how to take a test."
Woods provided some additional statistics, these touting the difference a sound tutoring program can make in a young life.
"Ninety-two percent of all of our young women are going to school whether it is high school, trade school or college," she said.
Forty-two young women are now actively involved; nearly 150 have taken part.
Footsteps to the Future's programs are made possible through both volunteer hours and donations.
Through the month of September, the organization has partnered with Bob Evans restaurants specifically to raise money for Footsteps' Academic Achievement Program.
Participating Bob Evans in Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Naples will donate 15 percent of certain sales to the program through Sept. 27.
"Dine to Make a Difference" days will be held Monday through Thursday from 2 p.m. to close with a flyer that must be presented at checkout.
"This is corporate American deciding they want to help a non-profit," Woods said.
The proceeds will be used to pay professional tutors and for such things a books and supplies the young women may need, labs, or even bus passes they may need to get them to class.
The flyer can be found in today's Breeze (see page 13A) or printed from the organization's web site and may be presented at the following Bob Evans: 2414 Del Prado Blvd. S., Cape Coral; 1420 Pine Island Road SW, Cape Coral; 13251 N. Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers; 7071 Cypress Lake Drive, Fort Myers; 8940 Colonial Center Drive, Fort Myers; and 2570 Northbrook Plaza Drive, Naples.
"We at Bob Evans try to be involved in the community and help the non-profit organizations as much as we can," said Vigen Avanes, area coach for Bob Evans in Southwest Florida. "It's not this particular charity, we do it with all kinds of charities in the neighborhoods. If other organizations come to us, we will work with them, too."
Bob Evans has partnered with Footsteps before.
"It's our second time doing it with them. It was a nice amount but this one is definitely going to be more successful," Avanes said.
For one thing, this event will be longer.
"Plus, through our partnership, we've done more to help make it successful," he said.
Bob Evans also is among the corporate and business partners which help with another program designed to foster self sufficiency.
"We also have what we call an employment partnership," Woods said. "There are companies that have agreed to hire qualified applicants from Footsteps."
Another type of mentoring program, the employer and Footsteps work to help participants obtain real-world job skills - and even a paycheck.
"DCF, Bob Evans, Denny's, Jason's Deli are all employers in town that are willing to take a look and interview our young people," Woods said. "It's really great; they'll work around their school schedules."
Additional mentors and volunteers are welcome.
"We right now have 18 mentors and we are always looking to recruit positive women in the community who are willing to give of their time and their talent to try to help these young women become independent, self sufficient, productive members of our community," Woods said.
Footsteps to the Future matches participants with a mentor and both sign a "match contract" that basically says they each agree to be respectful, to try their best and to "pay it forward in the community," Woods said.
Teens agree to one more thing - they have to be willing to be helped.
"The biggest challenge a mentor has is to build trust; many of these girls have been abused and disappointed by adults," Woods said. "They have a hard time trusting adults. Our mentors are very special people."
Training is provided. Mentors need to bring good listening skills, the willingness to become a good friend and to provide moral support and information on available resources.
For those not able to make a two-year commitment, there are many other roles within the organization, she said.
For more information call 239-275-5834 or 239-281-7378 or email firstname.lastname@example.org . Information is also available on on their website, footstepstothefuture.org.