Social workers removed Victoria Underhill and her two brothers from the custody of their parents about four years ago. A few months later, they were moved to SOS Children’s Villages of Florida in Coconut Creek, where they have been ever since.
“SOS Children’s Villages is a really amazing place to live,” Underhill said.
Last week, Underhill, 19, traveled north to meet her freshman-year college roommate near Jacksonville. She will graduate from Monarch High School in June and plans to major in psychology at the University of North Florida.
Lashonda Cross, who helps manage SOS Children’s Villages of Florida’s Next Steps program, will be with her every step of the way throughout the enrollment, financial aid and moving processes.
The Next Steps program is helping Underhill focus on her educational goals. For SOS Children’s Villages of Florida, she belongs in a long line of success stories.
Former foster children, lacking the help and support of permanent and stable families, are often forced to address the challenges of continuing education, employment, housing and starting their own family with limited resources and guidance, said Victoria Walter, SOS Children’s Villages of Florida spokeswoman.
Children under foster care are less likely to receive their high school diploma let alone continue to college. More than 20 percent will become homeless, and 25 percent will become incarcerated, Walter said.
With the Next Steps program, alumni of SOS Children’s Villages are given access to resources and guidance. They will have help, should they need it, for the rest of their lives.
“I think the most important thing is that we don’t allow our kids to leave until they graduate high school,” Cross said. “So if they are 19 and on the cusp of graduating, we encourage them to stay here so they are more supported.”
A community redevelopment block grant recently issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and awarded to SOS Children’s Villages of Florida, will allow the organization, which currently serves about 72 children on site, to repair the roofs of seven group homes.
Last month, the City Commission approved allocating the grant funds, more than $200,000, for the project. Construction was planned to start this week.
At the commission meeting, SOS Children’s Villages of Florida President and CEO Keith DuVernay took time to share his agency’s success with the high school graduation rate of the young people under its care.
Underhill and nine other wards of the state currently living at SOS Children’s Villages are set to graduate from high school in June.
In the last seven to eight years, nearly 100 percent of the young people who turned 18 under the care of the Coconut Creek agency have earned high school diplomas, Walter said.
For Cross and Walter, the agency’s success is a team effort between case managers and other child-welfare workers and the donors who make what SOS Children’s Villages of Florida does financially possible.
But the work is difficult. Last week, Underhill let slip that a girl had “disappeared” from her group home. The teenager ran away.
“We have those,” Cross said. “It’s a new environment. They have their fears about being here around eight strangers that they don’t know.”
In June, the agency will celebrate its high school graduates with a party. College supplies and graduation gifts will be provided thanks to sponsors.
Underhill said she is excited about college. She credits SOS Children’s Villages of Florida with helping her break the stereotype of the underachieving foster kid.
“Everyone else has obstacles in their life,” she said. “We just get over it and find a better way to cope.”
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