Deborah Harris knows firsthand the importance of obtaining housing and life skills for young adults close to aging out of the foster care system.
Harris, 18, is getting that help and more from the Pooler nonprofit Gilliard & Company Independent Living Program.
G&Co provides housing and life skills for youth opting to remain in foster care at age 18 until their 21st birthday. Challenges young adults face if they exit foster care right at 18 are homelessness, sex trafficking, jail imprisonment, substance abuse and death by suicide or homicide.
G&Co provides a much-needed way for young adults to transition into independence and self-sufficiency after foster care.
G&Co ILP provides all expenses for apartment-style housing complete with rent, utilities, groceries, furniture, access to extracurricular activities and more for ages 18 to 21. G&Co staff assist each young adult in seeking higher education, as well as connect them with employers.
“I love this program,” Harris said. “It’s more than just a place to live. They are here for you whenever you need them. I think of them as family.”
The Georgia Division of Family & Children Services placed Harris in a group home in Brunswick when she was 16. She landed there after suffering years of trauma living with her family in Atlanta. She also was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance at age 16, an event that causes her to continue to have panic attacks today.
Harris didn’t know how she would ever be able to live on her own, gain job skills or even learn to drive when she left the group home.
Enter G&Co, which is providing Harris with a rent-free apartment with a roommate in Georgetown, groceries and life-skill lessons like financial literacy. She’s enrolled in an online nursing program to become a registered nurse and looking forward to starting driving courses to obtain her license. Her grandparents might buy her a car, Harris said.
Harris also is in therapy, trying to work through the trauma she’s suffered.
What gets her through her struggles? She thinks about the strong person she wants to be for her 5-year-old half-brother who lives in Ohio.
“I have been through so much, but I wouldn’t change a thing about my life because it’s made me who I am today,’’ Harris said.
Feels like familySince becoming providers in July 2019, G&Co has had 11 young adults enter the independent learning program, all at various times.
While providing imperative services for young adults in foster care, G&Co is now asking the Pooler community for help.
The G&Co ILP site is currently in an apartment community in Georgetown. They’re actively looking for an apartment community in Pooler, where their office is, to move the program to this summer.
“Our program is considered a scattered site being that G&Co does not have a residential facility,’’ said COO and ILP Director Marisa Pierce. “It's important to be in and among the community that is or as close to normalcy outside of care. What better way to teach and transition our young adults into an apartment of their own that they can successfully lease and maintain than by already living in one?”
G&Co beginningsWhitney Gilliard is a product of the foster care system herself, having lived in 18 placements while in foster care, giving her insight into the lives of children and adolescents in foster care and into the foster care system. She is also a survivor of child abuse. Whitney entered congregate care at the age of 14 and wasn't taken in by a foster home until age 17.
She and Maurice have a son, Aemon. They are devoted to stopping the cycle of child abuse and abandonment. The Gilliards are advocates for fostering and adopting.
No wonder Harris has found the independent learning program the Gilliards founded to be so welcoming. Harris said that after she told Whitney Gilliard of the panic attacks she has, Gilliard told Harris she can call her anytime, even 2 a.m.
“That’s what family does,’’ Harris said.
Foster care affects everyone. Anyone can be one financial, physical, mental or emotional crisis away from being affiliated by the care system in some way, Pierce said.
“The more recognized this is, the more you can become involved and help,” Pierce said. “We — foster care — are here in the community and it can only take community to better the system and help those in care thrive.”
Help 18- to 21-year-olds in foster care find housing in Pooler (savannahnow.com)
Contact Anne Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Instagram at southernmamas.
Living over 18 places has taught me that every child deserves a home. Being a survivor of child abuse has taught me that every child needs to be heard. Growing up in foster care has taught me to bloom where I am planted. Being a mother and a wife has taught me to be resilient. Operating a charity has taught me that people really do want to help. Providing homes for youth in care has taught me that bad days does not mean a bad life. Advocating for children has taught me to be brave.