Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2014

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health care column:

Businesses improve foster kids’ chances to succeed in life

It’s heartbreaking to think about children who have had a rough, unstable start in life, like many raised in foster care and entering a world when they are not ready.

Some Las Vegas businesses are trying to help prepare these children for adulthood after their access to social services — the rock in their unstable world — dwindles and they are left to fend for themselves.

These businesses are using their skills to help foster children who are aging out of the system and entering a world when they may not be ready.

Take, for example, attorney Al Marquis of the law firm Marquis & Aurbach. Not only did he and a neighbor open up their Spring Valley ranches to the young adults for two days of fun, he also worked with them on their job-interview skills. The lawyers at his firm bought hygiene items for the teens.

The five-day, four-night camp is run by Project Elevate, an extension of Project Sunshine of Nevada, a nonprofit group that connects volunteers to children with medical problems.

“This (program) is something we need our business community to support,” Marquis said. The firm also provides free office space for Project Sunshine.

The 14 participating teens came from St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, Boys Town, Agape Villages and some independent foster homes.

In Las Vegas, about 350 to 400 teens age out if the system every year, said Kari Tillman, executive director of Project Sunshine and coordinator of Project Elevate. Foster children age out after they graduate from high school or pass the General Educational Development test.

They are at a disadvantage because they often haven’t been taught even the most basic life skills. Of the homeless youth living on the street, half were in the foster care system, she said.

“Pulling together, we can offer the youth more,” Tillman said.

Skills the teens learn include doing laundry, shopping on a budget, healthy diets and exercise, dining etiquette, social skills and personal hygiene. They also received mini-makeovers.

“These kids say they feel they just don’t fit in,” Tillman said. “They come out of the system a little raw around the edges.”

M Resort gave the teens a place to stay for two nights and Enterprise Rent-A-Car provided vans to move the teens to the various activities. The Rampart’s Carmel Room interviewed a couple of the teens and offered one a job and tuition assistance for culinary training.

Some teens needed photo ID cards, a copy of their birth certificate or Social Security cards, all done during the camp.

Nevada State Bank taught the teens about financial education and helped them sign up for accounts at the bank, giving them a tour and teaching them about how to handle an account, said John Vanderploeg, regional manager of the bank.

“I think that the first thing that hit us was the fact they were very appreciative,” he said, adding that at first the teens seemed intimidated. “It was cool to see the (foster children) thrilled about the future.”

A field trip to Planned Parenthood gave them the chance to speak one-on-one with directors.

Tillman’s favorite part of the program was working with the teens on a daily budget — at first met with resistance by the teens.

Playing the role of a banker, Tillman met daily with them to figure out their income and expenses and budget accordingly. At first, some were tempted by unnecessary purchases, but by the end of the program, some had saved a great deal.

“It’s extraordinary to watch them transform,” she said.

The program was such a success that next year Project Elevate expects to offer it three times.

“It’s amazing to see them flourish when they realize the support system is there,” Tillman said. While in the foster care system, the children feel isolated and alone. A case worker often handles 60 children at a time.

Marquis encourages other businesses to help.

“I really think this (program) changes these kids’ lives,” Marquis said. “Who is more deserving of our help than these innocent kids who never got a break in life?”

Nicole Lucht covers health care, workplace, energy and banking issues for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. She can be reached at 259-8832 or at [email protected]

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