Life Skills program offers help, builds hope




Colin, 16, enjoys building deck chairs and gliders. Carpentry is a trade he learned while enrolled in the Life Skills program at the Florida United Methodist Children's Home.

Hard work paid off. The dark-haired teen's Adirondack chairs won Best of Show and first place at the Volusia County Fair.

Ready for the job interview! Deontay is one of many who have benefited by being able to participate in the Children Home's Independent Living Life Skills program.

Like Colin, some residents of the Children's Home are foster children placed there by the state. Others are children and young adults referred privately by Methodist ministers and others.

And like Colin, many residents have benefited through the years by participating in the Children's Home Independent Living Life Skills program.

“We're here to fortify youth that didn't get the life experience that they needed in order to survive out there in the real world,” said Zoe Peterson, Life Skills coordinator, who has worked at the Children's Home almost 18 years. “We teach them to be resourceful in the outside community.”

“If staff members believe they can meet a young person's needs, he or she comes into placement,” said Dr. Debra Suto Henry, director of Independent Living at the Children's Home, whose home base is a 100-acre campus in Enterprise, between Daytona Beach and Orlando. 

The Children's Home cares for about 470 children and young adults at multiple facilities and foster homes around the state. There are about 105 children and adults, ages 1 to 26, in Enterprise.

But residents also have to believe staff can meet their needs. Betty Nocentino, a residential adviser who lives on campus, has worked there for close to 17 years. She said growing up, she did not have the support of her caring colleagues—on the Life Skills team at the Children's Home—who provide for residents.

“So it's important that I relate to where they are coming from,” Nocentino said. “You have to build a relationship first before they are able to trust…because adults have harmed them so much.”

Once they trust staff members, residents are open to seeking advice and taking suggestions for how to navigate in the community to get resources.

The Life Skills team helps residents recognize and use their individual gifts. Residents can gain a competitive advantage in a career field while also receiving valuable skills to use in their personal lives after leaving the Children’s Home.

Utilizing cooperative learning environments, industrial grade equipment and highly certified instructors, residents learn the value of teamwork by working with others to accomplish common tasks.

One resident, a mother of two small children, had a high school diploma. But being in the Life Skills program inspired her to pursue a cosmetology degree, after which she could make money doing something she is passionate about.

Working with youth on the main campus and young adults on a separate campus nearby, the staff teaches financial literacy, cooking and parenting. Like Colin, some residents work on campus in trades such as carpentry, earning incomes making picnic tables and the chairs he excels at.

There are other success stories.

Carlee, 20, a resident for three years, said staff helped her manage her money and get a job. She graduated from high school, is now in college and plans to have a career in health care.

 "I’ve learned how to cook some different meals, and they’ve helped me get out of my shell," Carlee said. "I’ve also learned food-handling safety tips. I’ve learned community services and that if you don’t have food, you can go to a food pantry."

In addition to sewing classes, the Life Skills program offers training in everything from cosmetology to building chairs and tables. The program works to build confidence and develop skills that change lives for the better.

The Children's Home has a horticulture program where youth grow fruit, vegetables and herbs. The staff is reviving the automotive mechanic's program. There's also a child care program and a cosmetology salon.

When they enter the Life Skills program, residents undergo the Ansell-Casey Life Skills Assessment, Suto Henry said. Results help staff assess what the residents' strengths and weaknesses are, which helps them design classes to fill those gaps.

“If they don't know how to count money, then they'll sit with our Life Skills coach and learn how,” said Suto Henry, an employee of the Children's Home for about 25 years.

Residents also enroll in classes after taking emotional intelligence tests, which rate “how they are emotionally, how they perceive other people's feelings, understand their own feelings,” Suto Henry said.

Some 55 children at the Children's Home participate in the Life Skills program. When residents reach age 18 with no other housing options, some go across the street to transitional housing, where they can stay through age 26.

Geriah, 18, says becoming a part of the Life Skills program inspired him to be whatever he wants to be. But it also gave him hope that his situation "will not break me, but build me.  Here, being able to have someone listen and help, means a lot to me,” he said. “I am no longer homeless and hopeless.”

Donovan, 18, says the Life Skills program changed his life. 

"I have learned the skills for finding jobs, managing my money and learning time management," he said. Donovan is a senior in high school, working part-time "and proud of my achievements and want to thank the Independent Living (Life Skills) program for investing their time in me.”

Through the program, residents learn life skills that help them find resources they need, particularly how to properly use the internet.

Tracking about 120 alumni, staff measures success by whether former residents maintain a job for one year after moving out, or if they don't become homeless within that year.  

Anyone interested in purchasing an item made by residents should contact Deborah Williams at deborah.williams@fumch.org or 386-668-4774 ext. 2278.

Go to FUMCH.org/making-a-difference/sale-residents-work/ to learn more about the program, the furniture and prices. The Adirondack chairs Colin makes cost $50-$75.

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.


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