Together We Can Foundation-Smart Transitions
In July of 2008, the Together We Can Foundation (TWC) was formed as a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation in the state of Virginia by former Director of Human Services for Virginia Beach, Terry Jenkins, and a group of concerned citizens. The purpose of the organization was to help create more positive outcomes for young adults aging out of foster care. Specifically, our mission was to ensure the successful transition of young adults from foster care to independent adult life. This is an often-overlooked population with an extremely high risk disconnection, which frequently results in unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, and incarceration. All too often, these young people leave foster care without a direction, without a plan, without savings, without skills, and without a safety net of family and caring adults.
Foster Youth are mandated by the State of Virginia to attend Independent Living Training, while in care during their adolescent years. In 2009, TWC facilitated a partnership between the Virginia Beach Department of Human Services and Tidewater Community College to enhance the ongoing independent living program by moving these monthly classes to the Virginia Beach campus of Tidewater Community College. By bringing foster care teens onto the campus of a vital community college, we were able to expose them to career possibilities as well as to college life. This significantly raised the attendance at the monthly independent living classes.
Housing and Educational Support
During this time period, TWC also raised funds through individual donations and a grant from the Virginia Beach Community Foundation to make emergency grants to teens for housing and education. This brought much needed emergency financial support to teens pursuing higher education and in need of such basics as laptop computers, mattresses and bedding, utility deposits, etc.
Foster Care Youth Advisory Council
Sometimes it is the little things that have the greatest impact. Virginia Beach’s Department of Human Services has a vital Foster Care Advisory Council made up of teens in foster care. This program, under the direction of Ninah Pearson, provides community and leadership skills to foster teens. TWC has supported events such as the Foster Care Youth Advisory Council Talent Show, to build a sense of community for these teens.
In 2010, thanks to a generous grant from a community leader in Hampton Roads, TWC hired a full-time executive director and, after researching best practices from programs around the country, launched a pilot of a programmatic intervention for teens in foster care in Virginia Beach that focused on success skills in the areas of career identification and personal presentation skills. The vehicle for accomplishing these goals was the Connections Program. In 2011, after a successful pilot phase and based on a grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation and contributions and sponsorships from area community organizations and businesses, TWC began the expansion of the program to additional Hampton Roads municipalities. In 2011 and 2012, we added a program called Smart Money to help foster youth learn about managing money and about the challenges of independent living. We also experimented with models that provided individual mentors to teens as well as forming adult-youth mentoring groups. TWC also convened a working group of those interested in the plight of homelessness among disconnected youth in Hampton Roads.
By the summer of 2012 the TWC board assessed the data for youth that had participated in the Connections Program to date. We were pleased to see significant improvement in outcomes against national and regional averages, but we also realized that foster youth were just one sub-population in a larger population of youth at-risk of disconnection that numbers over 36,000 youth between 14 and 24 across Hampton Roads. The TWC board voted to expand our mission to reach youth with other risk factors for disconnection (foster care, homelessness, economic disadvantage, court involvement, academic failure) with the expanded programming. This became the Smart Transitions initiative.
Smart Transitions is a set of classes designed to nurture and enhance skills in critical areas of success such as personal presentation, career identification, financial planning, money management, communication, relationship managment, leadership, self-confidence, and conflict resolution. Smart Transitions also has an adult parenting component, with outreach presentations that focus on the skills of effective parenting of adolescents. We also do community advocacy and information campaigns. In mid 2012 we launched a program that brought foster care youth together with horses. As youth learned to train and ride these horses, their communication and problem-solving skills improved dramatically, as did their self-confidence. This pilot would become the Equine Youth Challenge program located in Smithfield, Virginia.
As TWC grew, we realized that while we were seeing dramatic success with our model of high-impact, direct-service (staff-taught classes), we were still a relatively small organization and the size of the problem was so large. In 2013 we launched a publication titled GET SET: A Smart Guide To Adult Life. This 48 page color guide was a youth-centric exploration of what it means to move into adult life and the workforce successfully. Through generous grants and donations from the community, we were able to provide these guides to community partners for distribution. We also offered training to parents, mentors, and youth program staff in ways to use the guides with small groups of youth.
In 2014 we launched a second guide titled GET WORK: A Smart Guide to Finding a Job, Keeping a Job, and Building a Career. We also began a pilot project with Virginia Beach Public Schools to deliver materials and staff training to the high schools. As of 2016 we continue to work with Virginia Beach High Schools and are launching a program with Portsmouth High Schools. We have also added a companion workbook for the GET SET Guide.
Since it's inception, TWC has served over 1900 youth with success skills training and in some cases financial assistance. In addition, we have reached over 15,000 youth with indirect service through the distribution of our materials and the training of mentors and adult staff that serve youth.