FORT LAUDERDALE –– At age 15, Linsey Brewster of Fort Lauderdale accepted the responsibility of becoming an adult on her own. Her grandparents, with whom she had lived since the death of her parents, relocated to Oklahoma.
“It was my choice to stay behind,” Brewster admitted. “They [my grandparents] gave me the option to move away with them, but I wanted to stay here and finish high school.”
Brewster said the idea of independence and personal freedom at age 15 excited her.
“But reality of my quick decision soon hit. I stayed with my sister, who was only a year older; a step grandmother and then an aunt. I was receiving Social Security
Income benefits from my parent’s death, but never even saw any of the money; not one check. I still had to take care of myself. People really took advantage of my situation. Family can be tougher to live with and depend on than strangers. My so-called independence stopped being fun when from one night to the next I had no idea where I was going to sleep.”
Now 22, Brewster works as a client assistant for HANDY (Helping Abused Neglected Disadvantaged Youth), located at 101 NE 3rd Street in Fort Lauderdale, where she was introduced to the LIFE (Life skills, Independent living, Foundation building and Education/Employment) program at age 16.
It was while living with a friend from high school, Brewster said, that one of many social workers told her about HANDY. She described HANDY at that time to be “a really small place, more like a Boys and Girls Club, a place to be.
“When I graduated from high school, they helped me find an apartment, paid the deposit on it, provided me with food and other necessities. They taught me life skills so I could survive.”
Brewster was among the first young adults in the program to transition to independence. A non-profit organization founded in 1985, HANDY is dedicated to meeting the fundamental needs of Broward County’s Foster Care children as well as those who have been abused, neglected and abandoned and placed with relative and non-relative caregivers and monitored by the state under its Protective Supervision division.
Since its inception, HANDY has served more than 30,000 of Broward County’s youth, Arlene Ratner, HANDY’s executive director said. In the last year, 2,793 were serviced by all programs.
“If we can provide them with training, help them become more productive members of society and stop the cycle of abuse, then they can realize their dreams,” said Ratner.
“That’s something [dreams] a lot of have not had.”
The LIFE Program provides the services and support necessary to maximize the potential of at-risk teens, ages 12-23, during the critical period of transitioning to adulthood, Kirk Brown, the program’s director said.
The program offers job assistance, a clothing bank, drop back in program that allows youth to reconnect to school; living assistance that includes $200 rent and $100 food stipends, $300 for start-up shopping and Florida Power and Light deposit, Brown added.
“We have kids working with the city of Fort Lauderdale, BrandsMart USA, Wal-Mart, day care centers throughout the county, and in the tourism industry for starters,”
Brown said. “We partner with as many organizations and property owners as we can to help the kids. I don’t think people understand the bridge between what they’ve [the kids] been through and what they are capable of. It’s a bridge between chaos and opportunity.”
Ninety-five percent of the children in the transition program are employed, “87 percent are seeking higher education,” Brown said.
Last fiscal year, HANDY’s LIFE program served more than 300 non-duplicated youths.
“I am not empowering youth to stop their education at the high school level,” he added. “We want them to enrich their lives and have what they need. You can’t sugarcoat something to a child that has slept on the street.”
The program began seven years ago with 26 children in one room, Brown said.
“One day 45 showed up, and then 70. Then one evening after the skills class, I saw one of the young girls in the program at the bus stop and offered her a ride home.”
He said they drove around about 30 minutes before he realized that she was homeless.
“That experience reinforced that fact that you can teach them all the life skills they need, but if you don’t help them get the means, you’re not doing anything.”
During the next class, Brown said he asked the kids how many of them were homeless, and 10 hands went up.
“That’s when we started independent living,” he said.
Brown said that the LIFE program has since assisted close to 83 young adults in Broward County in securing their own apartments with life coaches monitoring their progress.
Brewster, with assistance and guidance from the LIFE program, graduated from Deerfield High School, attended Broward College, and will continue at Florida Atlantic University this year where she will complete her last two years of study for a degree in social work.
“Being adjudicated through the state, I received the Florida pre-paid scholarship,” Brewster explained.
HANDY offers a scholarship that pays $500 per semester for books, Brewster added. The Florida pre-paid scholarships are only applicable to state schools or public community colleges.
“I didn’t take advantage of it at first, but when I had my son, Jeremiah, I knew I had to make a better life for the both of us.”
Brewster admits that her transition to working with HANDY has been tough, but she “really cares about the kids in the program. I know what they are going through because I’ve been there. We’ve all made bad decisions; some of us live with bad decisions others made for us. But things can still change; you have to learn to overcome the obstacles. That’s what I learned here.”
For more information on HANDY, its programs, volunteering or making donations, call 954-523-7210, visit www.handyinc.org.
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Linsey Brewster