spotlight story – city of life

Our board members’ stories are so interestingly woven into Valencia’s tapestry. They interact with and impact Valencia in many different ways.

Pat Buffa is a long-time foundation board member and has two sons that graduated from the college, but his Valencia story goes deeper than that. A few years ago, we polled board members to see what their first acts of philanthropy and volunteering were. Pat recalled when he was 23 and offered service and charity to an orphanage in Saigon. The reason: “These kids deserved a better fate.” It is a sentiment that has stuck with him through the years and shapes his philanthropy even today.

It was a little over ten years ago, and the college had a new president, Dr. Sandy Shugart. Pat approached Dr. Shugart with an idea of putting together a grass-roots community-action group to assist the child welfare system with the preparation of foster care youth when they turn 18 and have to go out in the world and make it on their own. From that meeting, Valencia became an early partner for City of Life, a 501(c)3 organization focused on the needs of foster youth who “age out” of the system at 18. Says Pat, “Valencia, and in particular Dr. Ruth Prather were instrumental in getting us started and helped us build credibility in the community.”

Dr. Ruth Prather served as campus president at East and Winter Park campuses and she recalls, “In the early days of City of Life, I attended many of Pat’s meetings and had numerous conversations about how Valencia could support the college education of foster children. Education is so important for all young adults in this competitive work world, and most foster children were on their own after high school and had little knowledge of higher education. They needed direction and opportunity. Valencia was a perfect fit to support the education of these youth. We looked at models from other cities and looked at possible grant opportunities. The mission of Valencia and the needs of these young adults were a perfect match. Valencia has always cared greatly about the community we serve, and many of Valencia’s programs and services were already in place to provide support. I invited other Valencia employees to learn about City of Life and the relationships grew. It was important to connect these students and those in the community who work with foster children to learn about Valencia and for Valencia to learn about the needs of foster children.”

So what exactly happens when a youth in foster care turns 18? Bethanie Barber, Esq., Guardian ad Litem program litigation coordinator at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County Bar Association, provides us with some background: “Most youth who ‘age out’ of foster care are generally eligible for financial assistance, but the assistance is tied to their educational and career goals. Youth who ‘age out’ of foster care are eligible for exemption from paying tuition and fees at a Florida public state university, public Florida College System institution or public postsecondary career and technical program. This exemption remains valid until the young person reaches the age of 28. It allows youth to receive an undergraduate degree.”

Allan Chernoff, executive director at City of Life, explains that these young people face a roadblock when they “age out.” The best case scenario is if the young person is in school and has a job, but all too many of these children are turning 18 with no high school degree, no job, and no plans for higher education. This is a group without a support system, lacking not only the plan to get a college degree, but also needing guidance on even reaching out and exploring opportunities. These young people come out of the system with no birth certificate, nowhere to live. When faced with these daily struggles, getting an education can seem like an insurmountable task.

And so City of Life is hard at work today, leveraging community resources to make a difference in the lives of these young people. City of Life currently leads a community coalition of partners that includes case management organizations and many other organizations. In addition to Valencia, Westside Tech is an educational resource and offers tours to prospective students. The Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Guardian ad Litem program, Workforce Central Florida, all work together to provide these young people with a hand up and a good start. When 11 young people did not have the appropriate identification, City of Life partnered with IDignity and got seven of them the paperwork needed.

In support of City of Life, Valencia recently held a tour on West Campus to highlight the nursing program. Pat Buffa reports that “Valencia got special compliments not only for this visit but also for the positive attitude Valencia staff has demonstrated to the DCF folks who have interfaced with Valencia over the past number of years.”

Deb Spaulding, senior instructional assistant for Valencia's nursing program, leads the City of Life tour.

Deb Spaulding, senior instructional assistant for Valencia’s nursing program, leads the City of Life tour.

Foundation staff were present and encouraged the young people to apply for scholarships. Even if they receive a subsidy for tuition expenses, scholarships can help to pay for the cost of textbooks and supplies.

Foundation board members and Dr. Louise Pitts, retired Valencia dean of health sciences, were also at the tour. We share some of Dr. Pitts’ insights in the nursing article below. Deb Spaulding and Nicole Witek served as great ambassadors for the nursing program, and a very special thank you to Angie Riquelme who coordinated the effort!

And because of that tour, something amazing happened – a connection was made, an interest in higher education was sparked. One of the students followed up with the foundation to get more information on financial aid and scholarships. We hope to keep you posted on this young lady’s journey. And remember, when you donate to the foundation, you are helping make those connections, helping to ignite a spark that can truly make a difference in someone’s future.

For more information on City of Life, visit http://cityoflifeorlando.org/

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