Nonprofit helps Lake County foster kids reach their full potential

Forward Paths Foundation bridges foster care, independence

LEESBURG, Fla. – Forward Paths Foundation Executive Director Denise Burry is this week's Getting Results Award winner. 

Burry and the Forward Paths Foundation have been helping Lake County's homeless unaccompanied youth and those aging out of foster care transition to adulthood and independence.

"We're a life coach, mentor, teacher, surrogate parent," Burry said. "Every youth is different. Their abilities are wide-ranging."

Working out of a small office in Leesburg, Burry and a group of volunteers help children with everything from food and clothing to getting an ID card and registering for classes. The organization even helps house close to 20 young adults.

"I'm constantly on the phone with somebody, trying to see how we get something done," she said from behind her crowded desk.

Burry said that for many children in foster care, their 18th birthday is met with uncertainty.

"It's very unnerving to get to your 18th birthday and not know where you're going to go," she said. 

In Florida, those in foster care are considered adults at 18. They have the opportunity to stay in foster care and receive some services until they are 21, or 22 if they have a disability. But Burry said too many are unprepared for independent living. Housing, supervision and lack of financial awareness are common challenges they face.

"We're working with this group because they haven't had the adult influences that they should have had growing up," she said. "They can't make that jump from foster care to adulthood without somebody being with them along the way. My kids didn't do that, so how can I expect a kid that's been through so much more to be as successful?"

According to a 2015 report by Child Trends Data Bank, youth who age out of foster care instead of returning home or being adopted may face challenges to making a successful transition to adulthood. According to the study, children who spent long periods of time in foster care were more likely to experience unemployment, homelessness and incarceration.

Mikel Hobson turned 18 in May, while attending Leesburg High School. Hobson had been living in a group home. "When I was turning 18, people were asking me what I was going to do after I age out," he said. "To be honest the first question that was on my mind was, 'Where am I going to go?'" 

Hobson found help at Forward Paths and is continuing his classes. Mentors help guide him through making difficult decisions. "For someone who doesn't like to ask for help," he said. "They make sure I get what I need without asking. It's nice getting help from adults." 

Burry was nominated for the Getting Results Award by volunteer Barbara Bove. "I wrote to you because Denise is my absolute inspiration," she said. "I don't know how she does it."

"It is working. These kids are going on. They're getting jobs. They are finishing school," Burry said. "These kids are so young and their life experiences -- they've seen so many bad things. But if we can be patient with them, give our time and see that they have a different outcome, that's what makes it special." 

Forward Paths Foundation relies on volunteers and local donations. If you would like to help, you can find more information at  forwardpaths.org.

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