Cordelra Harris joined a gang in his late teens because he wanted to be a leader. He got his wish, quickly rising to a top position in a local gang. He sold drugs, but he also developed a big-brother relationship with the gang's younger members.
"Some of the little kids were 16 or 17 years old, and they were looking for love. I was looking to give love, but I was giving love in the wrong way," said Cordelra, seated next to his wife Charkevia in their apartment in Hickory Hill.
It took getting shot in the face at age 20 for Cordelra to realize he was on the wrong path. Today, the 22-year-old is legally blind in his right eye as a result of the shooting. But other than that, his life is running pretty smoothly.
Cordelra left the gang after the shooting. He married Charkevia last April, and the couple proudly displays their framed marriage certificate on an end table in their modest living room. He's working on getting his GED, and he's launching a ministry to help teens stay away from gangs. But he admits he couldn't have made so much progress without a little help.
Both Cordelra and Charkevia are enrolled in Youth Villages' Transitional Living program, which pairs troubled youth and former foster kids with a counselor to help guide them into adulthood. Many participants in the program, ranging between age 17 and 22, have aged out of the foster care system.
Others, like Cordelra and Charkevia, joined Transitional Living because, although they were never in foster care, they have troubled pasts that may have involved abusive or negligent parents or, in Cordelra's case, were caught up in gangs.
"They don't have the typical experience of a 17- or 18-year-old who is living with their parents. They don't have a person they can call for help," said Kristin Landers, clinical program manager for the Transitional Living program.
Charkevia, 20, said she moved in with Cordelra when she was 19 years old to escape an abusive parent. Charkevia wasn't taught basic life skills at home. Since she's been in the Transitional Living program, she's learned how to live on her own.
"My Transitional Living specialist has helped me with so much that a grown-up should know. I learned how to grocery shop, and she's helped us budget medical bills for Cordelra," Charkevia said. "She helped us buy a car and furniture and open up bank accounts. Now we're trying to get Cordelra's GED."
Cordelra's disability has made the GED process a little challenging. He can't see well enough to read, so his Transitional Living specialist, Chad Hannaford, is helping him make arrangements to take the test orally.
On any given day, there's an average of 130 local young adults enrolled in the Transitional Living program. Each are assigned a counselor, called a Transitional Living specialist, who meets with them once a week to assist them in everything from getting an apartment or a job to helping them enroll in college.
The most extensive study of former foster kids to date looked at 602 youths in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin in 2010. The results: Only half of them were employed by their mid-20s, and six in 10 men had been convicted of a crime. Three out of every four women were receiving public assistance.
By contrast, 81 percent of the Transitional Living participants are employed, in school, or have graduated from school two years post-discharge. Seventy-five percent have had no involvement with the law.
"[Without this program], they would probably be on welfare or public housing assistance," said Youth Villages CEO Pat Lawler. "I doubt many would have finished high school, and they'd be in minimum wage jobs."
Making the Transition
On a cold Friday morning in February, LaQuita Thomas and her specialist Lydia Dunlap meet to discuss how to find an apartment. Thomas, 20, a former foster kid who is temporarily living with her grandmother in Frayser, has been given until the end of the month to find a job and move out on her own.
Dunlap is armed with sample leases, worksheets on apartment-finding basics, and a list of affordable units in Midtown. She quizzes Thomas on what qualities she's looking for in her first apartment.
"Would you rather live alone or with a roommate?" Dunlap asks.
"Alone," Thomas says matter-of-factly.
"In a small two-bedroom or a large one-bedroom?"
"More closet space or more cabinet space?"
"I know, girl. I've seen your shoe collection," says Dunlap, laughing. "This girl has more shoes than anybody I've ever seen."
They go over the basics, such as security deposits, lease requirements, and rules regarding pets. (Thomas wants a cat.) At the end of the one-hour session, Dunlap hands Thomas a list of apartments, and they discuss how Thomas will be able to afford to move.
Thomas was placed into foster care at age 4 when the Department of Children's Services took her and her brothers away from their drug-addicted mother.
"I ended up in foster care, and I stayed there until I was 18," Thomas said.
In Tennessee, kids in foster care must leave their foster homes by age 18, unless they're working or attending school.
"A lot of times, the young people we help have trouble meeting those criteria," said Connie Mills, manager of public relations for Youth Villages. "They're going to fall through the cracks if somebody doesn't do something."
That "something" can be anything from helping the young adult find housing or jobs to helping them enroll in higher education. Each specialist is assigned a maximum of eight young people, and the job varies according to that client's dreams and goals. Some kids just want to finish high school and others dream of getting their master's degree.
"When we have a young person come to us, we start with an assessment. We look at all areas of that young person's life. We look at support. We look at housing. We look at employment, education, every area," Kristen Landers said. "We ask them up front what is most important to them, and then we put together a plan to reach those goals."
Although the specialist is there for support and advice, Landers is quick to point out that nothing is given for free.
"We don't put a child in an apartment and start giving them things. We set it up so they can learn to do those things on their own," Landers said. "A lot of our young people at age 18 are very tired of having another social worker or another counselor, so we come to it from a standpoint of 'What do you want?' rather than 'Here's what you're going to do next.'"
For 19-year-old Bridget Banks, that meant enrolling in culinary training. A teacher referred Banks to Transitional Living when she was in high school. At the time, she was living with her sister, who often left young Banks alone to raise that sister's nine kids. She tried moving out on her own into an apartment complex in Whitehaven, but management kicked her out after she was involved in a fight at the complex.
"Transitional Living has helped make me a better person. It's helped me get independent, and now I'm focused on everything I need to do. I have high self-esteem now," Banks said.
Julia Dunn, Banks' specialist, helped her enroll in a culinary arts program. She did her externship at Central BBQ and ended up getting hired full-time.
Since youth can join the program at age 18, a handful are still in high school. "Mark Smith," a 19-year-old senior at a South Memphis high school who asked not to reveal his real name, joined the Transitional Living program with dreams of becoming a history teacher. His specialist is helping him study for the ACT, and he's learning basic adult skills, like managing money and building a credit history.
The Department of Children's Services took Smith away from his family because he and his siblings were being neglected. Besides not having a supportive family, Smith has an additional challenge: He suffers from cerebral palsy. Yet the charismatic senior still walks about a mile from his apartment to school each day.
"Without Transitional Living, my life would just be haywire," Smith said. "I wouldn't have the mindset I have now about going into the real world. I would just be going to buy clothes and things I don't need. My specialist taught me to budget my money, you know, to buy one pair of jeans instead of several."
It's not uncommon for youth in the Transitional Living program to have kids of their own. Michelle Morgan, 18, has a 1-year-old son, and she balances parenting duties with college at the University of Memphis and a job at Subway. Morgan's specialist, Erica Summers, not only helped her learn to balance her budget, but she also helped her find affordable child care.
"I know I could do all of this stuff on my own, but it's nice to have the extra support," Morgan said. "With me being in school and having a job and a kid, that's a lot of time I don't have to look for resources to help me out."
Morgan was placed into foster care when she was 16 years old, after she and her sister escaped their abusive father in Clarksville, Tennessee.
"For as long as I can remember, my dad was abusive. He had alcohol problems. He would go to the bar and come home at two or three in the morning and wake everyone up and be abusive," Morgan said.
When her sister confessed to her that their father had been raping her for five years, Morgan packed their bags and they escaped out of a window when he was asleep. They ran to a neighbor's house, where they called the police. She went into foster care in Smyrna, Tennessee, but she was eventually placed back into her birth mother's care in Memphis.
Now Morgan, who got married in January, lives with her husband's mother. She's not sure what she wants to do career-wise, so her college major is still undecided. But Summers is helping her narrow down her choices.
"We've been doing some career-interest inventories to find out what she'd like to do in school," Summers said. "And we're going over study skills and looking into ways to help her better manage her time because she has so many responsibilities."
Other Transitional Living youth know exactly what they want in life, but they just need a little help getting there. Bianca Christian, 20, is studying psychology at the University of Memphis with plans to become a child psychologist. Her specialist helped her apply for financial aid, enroll in school, and find child care for her 10-month-old son.
Christian and four of her siblings were taken from their family in 2008 after suffering from abuse and neglect.
"My mom was very mentally, verbally, and physically abusive. She was mean for no reason," Christian said. "We ended up being moved out after a physical incident where she actually jumped on me."
She and her siblings were placed into a foster home, an event that Christian calls "the best thing that ever happened to us." She still maintains contact with her foster family, whom she lovingly refers to as "Grandma" and "Grandpa." After she moved out of her foster home at age 18, she enrolled in Transitional Living.
"When I meet with my specialist, we go over employment and time management, which is something I need help with since I'm a mom. I'm trying to make sure I have all my school work done on time," Christian said.
Without Transitional Living, Christian said she'd be facing her obstacles alone.
"Besides my old foster parents, it's just me. Having Youth Villages and the Transitional Living program is very helpful, because I have someone I can talk to," Christian said. "I have someone behind me to support me. They're like an extra family."
Out on Their Own
Since 1986, Youth Villages has served more than 66,000 children with emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues, first through their Memphis Boys Town and Dogwood Village residential facilities and later through in-home counseling with struggling families to prevent kids from ending up in the foster care system. They also pair foster children with families and facilitate adoptions.
Founded and headquartered in Memphis, Youth Villages has since branched into 11 other states and the District of Columbia. But the largest number of kids being served remains in Tennessee.
Until 1999, there was one segment of the youth population not being served. That was the year Youth Villages CEO Pat Lawler had a meeting with wealthy businessman Clarence Day, in which Day asked Lawler who the program wasn't helping. Lawler didn't think twice before answering.
"I said, in the last few years, we've identified a population of older kids who are failing miserably," Lawler said. "We knew kids were leaving here [at age 18] with no support system. When a 14-year-old has a bad outcome, it may mean they're suspended from school. When an 18-year-old has a bad outcome, that can mean they're living on the streets. They're pregnant. They don't have a job, or they're using drugs."
Day offered Youth Villages the funding to launch the Transitional Living program for kids who were aging out of the foster care system. The program was sustained solely by private funds for years until the state Department of Children's Services took notice in 2006 and began offering funds as well.
"Tennessee provides more resources for this population than any other state in the country," Lawler said. "With our match, Tennessee is so far ahead in supporting youth that it's unbelievable."
Although Day passed away in 2009, his Day Foundation recently awarded a $42 million grant, the largest Youth Villages has ever received, to continue funding the Transitional Living program.
"Essentially, that money allows us to serve more youth and prove our model out," said Youth Villages chief development officer Richard Shaw. "We're on a dual path of helping kids and proving that our model is the only model that has proven outcomes."
Youth Villages is proving that model through a study on the post-discharge success of Transitional Living youth. From October 2010 through early 2014, 1,300 Tennessee kids who are aging out of foster care will be randomly selected either to participate in the Transitional Living program or be referred to other community services not affiliated with Youth Villages.
"If they get randomized to community services, they'll get a packet letting them know what programs are out there," said Sarah Hurley, director of research for Youth Villages. "For example, there's a drop-in center where they can get help with their GED or get enrolled at Southwest [Tennessee Community College]. There are job-placement assistance programs and drop-in centers with laundry facilities. But there's no other program as intense and structured as ours."
Hurley's department will follow up with each person involved one year after they're discharged from Transitional Living or other community service programs to determine how successful youth become with or without the program.
Although Youth Villages has been following its Transitional Living youth for years, Hurley said they've never had any data to compare how successful former foster youth are without Transitional Living services.
"People look at our data and say, well, 88 percent of your kids are living at home, but how many would have been living at home without your services?" Hurley said. "Right now, I don't know because I only have access to people who have had our services."
Based on follow-ups her department has made with former Transitional Living clients, Hurley's research shows that 88 percent of them live independently or are back with their families as opposed to being homeless, in jail, or not having a permanent place to live.
Transitional Living clients typically stay in the program for seven to nine months — however long it takes for that person to get on their feet. Each client costs the program about $40 a day, and Shaw says it's worth every penny.
"You can look at the costs to run this program, but the cost of not doing anything is such a dramatic cost to society," Shaw said. "It may cost $8,000 to $10,000 [per year per child], and that may seem like a lot of money. But to do nothing and let a kid go out there and languish and end up homeless, incarcerated, or on welfare, the cost is much greater."
Steven Messer, a 21-year-old Transitional Living client, agrees with Shaw's assessment of where he'd be without the program. One of 12 kids, Messer left home at 15 because he was worried that he was following in the footsteps of his older siblings, who had all dropped out of high school.
A self-described "little misfit," Messer found a home at Dogwood, Youth Villages' residential facility. But he was discharged at age 17, so he enrolled in the Transitional Living program.
"Youth Villages saved me," said Messer, who is now majoring in Spanish at the University of Memphis. "Without them, I'd probably be a bum on the side of the street or locked up. Before, I had no motivation in life. I was young and wild and didn't have a care in the world."
Now Messer is considering a career at Youth Villages, where he could use his Spanish skills as a translator for Hispanic youth.
"They've done so much for me that I want to give back," Messer said. "If that means giving up my life to help someone else, I'm all for it."