‘Like a safety net’: Nonprofit helps former foster care youth thrive

Ernst Pirre Louis still remembers packing his things into big plastic bags and getting into a car, headed to yet another new home.

He spent most of his childhood in one foster care home or another, staying in at least eight different places — some good, some bad — before he aged out at 18.

Now 24, Pirre Louis is determined to make the system better for other kids, who he knows can struggle after leaving it, too often landing behind bars.

“I want to see change,” he said.

With two degrees from Florida State University and plans to attend law school, Pirre Louis is a foster care success story. He knows the majority who grow up like he did don’t fare as well: Studies have shown that less 10 percent of those grow up in foster care graduate from college.

Children's Fund helps kids, families. Can you help, too?

Children’s Fund helps kids, families. Can you help, too?

The sheer numbers tell you the impressive impact the Sun Sentinel Children’s Fund has had in helping people in South Florida who are less fortunate.

Now in its 25th year, the fund has raised almost $42 million to help nonprofit agencies provide services to disadvantaged children, families and adults.

The sheer numbers tell you the impressive impact the Sun Sentinel Children’s Fund has had in helping people in South Florida who are less fortunate.

Now in its 25th year, the fund has raised almost $42 million to help nonprofit agencies provide services to disadvantaged children, families and adults.

… (Sun Sentinel Editorial Board)

He set the bar high for himself early on, earning good grades in school and setting his sights on college. But he also gives credit to local organizations that have filled in the gaps in the system, like SOS Children’s Villages, which continued to be there for him even after he was no longer a child.

“Anyone who’s ever been 18 knows you’re not really ready for the world yet at that age,” said SOS development director Julie Selvaggi.

SOS Children’s Villages is supported by the Sun Sentinel Children’s Fund, a McCormick Foundation fund, which benefits South Florida nonprofit organizations that help local families and children in need.

Based in a tree-lined neighborhood in Coconut Creek, the village is a cul-de-sac of 12 foster care houses staffed by “house parents.” It was home to Pirre Louis — who first entered the foster care system at 5 years old — for several months when he was a teenager.

In the years since, he’s been supported by the organization’s After Care program, designed to help young adults transition out of foster care after turning 18. Through that program, Pirre Louis’ case manager, Lashonda Cross, has been there for him in all the ways a parent would.

“I must admit I do baby him,” she said. “When you have this person who’s working double time to make sure his future is OK and secure, you want to be able to help them in any way that you can. That’s my thing with him.”

She sent care packages to him when he was at college in Tallahassee, encouraged him before his final exams and, recently, helped him set up his new apartment in Fort Lauderdale. When he turned 24 last week, she was the one who took him out to lunch.

The support has meant the world to Pirre Louis. He said having someone to call at three in the morning and to be there “even if you don’t want them to sometimes” has helped him along the way.

“I try to be independent as much as possible and make my own decisions,” he said. “But when I mess up, it’s almost like a safety net, like when other people mess up and they have that safety net to fall back on.”

The foster care system usually operates by assuming that 18-year-olds are old enough to take care of themselves, Pirre Louis said. But he ran into problems like not having anywhere to go when college broke for the holidays and summer.

In 2013, Pirre Louis was involved in helping change that. He advocated for extending the foster care age to 21 and when that change took effect, he helped implement it as an intern with the Department of Children and Families.

Melanie Coats, who was Pirre Louis’ supervisor during that internship, has stayed in touch with him and recently wrote him a letter of recommendation for law school. She thinks he’ll be able to “do great things” to help other foster care kids.

“He has tenacity, and that’s something that it’s going to take to really make a difference,” Coats said.

Pirre Louis got his first glimpse at the state Legislature as a high school student, when he served as a messenger for then-state Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs. He said he saw that Tallahassee was where “all the laws are made that affect kids like me” and decided it was where he wanted to go.

Mission accomplished. Next up is law school. Pirre Louis has been studying for the LSAT while working a late-night shift at the Department of Juvenile Justice.

He’s not sure exactly what he wants to do after that: Though he knows he wants to work with kids, he talks about becoming a lawyer, a lobbyist, a teacher, a business owner.

“I think he can do whatever he sets his mind to,” said Porth, now a Broward County Circuit Court judge. “He’s pretty much removed all of the obstacles in his way, and he’s very focused. And I think he’ll get there, whatever he wants to do.”

bshammas@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4528 or Twitter @britsham

About the Sun Sentinel Children’s Fund

Until Dec. 31, 2015, you will be reading stories in the Sun Sentinel, and on SunSentinel.com, about local agencies supported by the Sun Sentinel Children’s Fund.

Already in 2015, the Children’s Fund has awarded over $200,000 to support 16 charities. By the end of the year, another $300,000 will be awarded.

How to donate:

Call 800-519-2480, or go online at SunSentinelChildrensFund.org/donate.

Article source: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/fl-childrens-fund-2015-sos-childrens-villages-20151210-story.html

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