For several weeks, a group of Florida foster youth has been working at one of the state’s largest state agencies as part of a new legislative pilot program. The goal is to help these young adults aging out of the foster system get on the path to future employment.
Back in 2005, Brian Williams went into the foster care system when he was a teenager. He later left when he was 18. The 22-year-old says overall, it wasn’t bad, but it was a big learning experience.
“After I aged out and I moved out on my own, been on my own ever since,” said Williams. “I always had my own place, I had some jobs in and out. Did school, and I didn’t graduate high school until after I aged out. And, then I went to Lively Technical, got two trades from there for electronic technology and computer technology. Then, I went to TCC to major in criminal justice.”
He says he’s faced several obstacles while in foster care. And, he says the one that comes to mind the most is not having that peer mentor.
“Not having that leadership, I want to say or not having that one person there that you could relate to,” added Williams. “You know, by us being younger, we want someone who’s around our age or who’s not too far who’s basically a role model. And, I guess we didn’t have that. So, it’s just hard to relate to a lot of the older people.”
That’s why he says he’s excited to be chosen for a legislative pilot program where he’s now working as an IT and telecommunications specialist at the Florida Department of Agriculture Technology Services.
“Basically, we’re the technology group for the phone lines, phones, computer software, software uploads, the systems’ database,” he stated. “I had an IT job before. I didn’t stay there long. So, this is actually a step up being involved with state…It doesn’t compare to just working somewhere in a library with computers. This is something that’s bigger than that.”
“It’s sort of like an internship crossed with a part-time job,” said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Ag Department.
Her department is the first state agency to offer this type of program to kids aging out of Florida’s foster care system, like Williams—who was one of six chosen to participate last month.
“They do have mentors assigned to them to help them develop professionally,” added Gillespie. “They’re going to be doing things as a group. So, it’s certainly more involved than a regular part-time employee, similar to an internship. So, we are working with them hands-on, you know, one-on-one to make sure that they have what they need, that they understand, and they are growing professionally so that if a full-time job does become available, they would be able to apply for that.”
So, how did this all start?
“Was sitting in my office, trying to figure out where there might be some unconventional type places that we might be able to help our kids in foster care or those who had been in foster care,’’ Rep. Ben Albritton. “So, it just occurred to me that a lot of times they don’t have much of a resume when they get out on the other side, when they go out into the marketplace looking for gainful employment, and that’s a real challenge for them.’’
The Wauchula Republican has worked on several previous efforts before aimed at helping foster kids, including a new law extending the age of foster kids from 18 to 21 and another that helps foster kids have an easier time obtaining a driver’s license.
Albritton says his latest project, the “Fostering Success” pilot just builds on those efforts.
“So, these kids can go in and do an internship there and learn real skills from real professionals and have something that they can take with them for the rest of their lives, including a resume builder,” he added. ”My hope is long-term is this will spread through all of our government agencies and we have places for these young people to go and participate all across state government.”
And, Williams—who’s taking part in the program—feels the same way. He says he’s not only grateful for being part of the first group to experience this type of program, he’s also grateful for having a mentor, like Program Coordinator David Struhs, who’s just a few years older than him.
“It’s like being the first person in the bus in the morning,” laughed Williams. “You get the best seats. You’re the first person or the first group of people to get the opportunity and you get to lead by example, you know, make the way for a lot of young guys. Maybe, we can look back years from now and say ‘This guy, David, right here, introduced us to a program that paves the way for other people and we did great.’ So, building a nice resume.”
Meanwhile, Albritton says he’s in talks with several state agencies to participate in the program. They include Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Citrus, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Those are the areas that he managed in the budget, when he chaired the Agriculture and Natural Resources budget committee.
The Legislature and the Governor already approved about $75,000 for the pilot in this year’s budget.
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