An abandoned bank building is rarely considered a sign of progress, but a former First Tennessee branch in South Memphis will soon become just that.
A partnership between First Tennessee, the South Memphis Alliance, and the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative will turn the building into the Dream Seekers Center, where "aged-out" foster youth can find shelter, support, and the resources to start living on their own.
"When someone turns 18, they're considered an adult, and they're forced out of the foster-care system," says Reginald Milton, executive director of the South Memphis Alliance.
"We've got to think about how we can help these young people reach adulthood."
While Milton says the most critical thing the center will offer is a place to live — homeless youth can stay there for up to 18 months — they'll also provide extensive programs to help them become self-sufficient. Without parents or guardians to offer guidance and support, many former foster children are susceptible to drug use, suicide, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, and criminal activity.
"As an organization, we try to empower people to engage issues on their own," Milton says. "We want to help these young people become more civically involved by giving them the tools to do so."
The Dream Seekers Center will also focus on financial literacy.
"It's easy for an 18-year-old to go into debt. And most people that age have parents to help them out of such a situation," Milton says. "These youth don't have a backup. When they get into a financial situation, it can affect them for the rest of their lives."
The South Memphis Alliance's counter to this problem is early education — the Jim Casey Initiative targets foster youth from age 14 to 24 — paired with concrete financial help. The Dream Seekers Center will also give its youth a financial boost, matching each former foster kid's yearly savings up to $1,000.
The South Memphis Alliance hopes to create a youth center where local groups can converge and offer more comprehensive services for struggling young Memphians.
"Separately, a nonprofit often tries to become a jack-of-all-trades," Milton says.
"Under one roof, each agency can focus on its core service, and when there's a problem they can't solve, they can say, 'Go across the hall.'"