Gaining Skills – and Independence

Gaining Skills – and Independence

Three young men were hard at work, filling stainless steel bowls with peas from two bushels of pods. Mixed with crispy bacon, onions and sweet bell peppers, this dish will star on tomorrow’s menu.


“Each one of us has our main thing that we really like to make,” says Donnell, wearing a chef’s cap and jacket.

For Alex, it’s pink lemonade. For Collin, it’s bread, cakes, brownies and pies.

“And I make slammin’ meatballs,” Donnell says. “But really, we put a lot of time and effort into everything we do in the kitchen. It’s all pretty great.”

Donnell, Alex and Collin are part of the Eliada School of Trade Arts, a new program in North Carolina designed to help ease the transition from foster care to independence. Known as ESTA, it provides housing, vocational and academic training, and life skills within one cohesive program. The goal is to give students the tools and support they need to become successful adults.

Launched with a multi-year grant from The Duke Endowment, ESTA welcomed its inaugural class of students in the summer of 2012. Although still in its infancy, the program may prove to be a winning way to address a troubling challenge.

A Disturbing Trend

On 200 rolling acres in Asheville, Eliada Homes has served vulnerable children and families in western North Carolina since 1906. Today, the nonprofit helps 550 children and adolescents each year through residential and day treatment; child development center services; foster care and therapeutic care; and therapeutic recreation.

Mark Upright, the president and CEO, began envisioning a school of trade arts several years ago after a former Eliada student came to his office asking for help. The young man was intelligent and outgoing, but had made poor decisions after he “aged out” of foster care.

In the past decade, more than 200,000 youth across the country left the foster care system when they became legal adults. In most states, aging out typically happens at age 18 if a young person hasn’t secured a permanent status with parents or other relatives.

The statistics are bleak. Emancipated foster youth face an increased risk of incarceration, substance abuse, homelessness and early parenthood. They’re unlikely to finish high school, let alone college. They often lack the basic skills and education necessary to build a stable future.

“One young man once told me, ‘We turn 18 and all of a sudden, we’re supposed to know everything – and we didn’t even have a chance to do most things that kids our age get to do,’” Upright says. “And I had to look him in the eye and say, ‘You’re exactly right.’ Unfortunately, when these young people most need support is when all support has been pulled away.”

Tackling the Challenge

To help young people prepare for independence before they age out of foster care, The Duke Endowment has worked with accredited organizations and other select nonprofit groups to offer programs focused on transitional living, career services and vocational training.

A 2007 grant, for example, helped start the Bakker Career Center at Carolina Youth Development Center in Charleston, S.C. A 2011 grant funded Youth in Transition, an initiative in Forsyth County, N.C., designed to improve connections to community resources and services. The Endowment’s Trustees approved the ESTA grant in 2012.

“ESTA is one of several strategies that we’re currently funding to work with youth aging out,” says Phil Redmond, director of the Endowment’s Child Care program area. “Eventually, we’ll try to pick among those that we’re investing in to decide which is the most effective for helping this population transition to adulthood.”

‘See You Later’

ESTA is starting small. Six students are enrolled, including the first two women. To be eligible, they must have a history of long-term foster care, and access to less than $10,000 in personal resources.

Students live on campus in duplexes with a full-time student affairs coordinator always available. They participate in service learning opportunities, team-building exercises and an evidence-based life skills curriculum that promotes wellness.

Fifty percent of instructional time is spent in hands-on educational opportunities. Students can take advantage of on-campus work study employment and receive an hourly wage. They establish a checking and savings account, and take driver’s education. Currently, each one works at a local restaurant for on-the-job experience.

“At the end of two years, we really want them at the point where they say, ‘I’m ready to go. See you later’,” Upright says.

The program focuses now on the culinary arts, but future plans call for branching out. Students will be able to earn certificates in HVAC, masonry and construction, landscaping, and pre-K education. Enrollment will increase from six to 67.

“Right now, it costs about $38,000 per student,” Upright says. “It’s expensive, because there are only six students. But once we get up to 67, the cost drops down to $8,000 per student.”

Funding from the Endowment and other foundations is supporting ESTA through the three years it takes to become accredited. Afterward, the program will be sustainable through Pell Grants and other state or national sources.

Some students left the program early, and recruiting for the second year has been challenging. But leaders at Eliada say they’re fine-tuning the program as it matures. Eventually, Upright hopes ESTA proves successful enough to be replicated at agencies across North Carolina.

Doing it Right

In the gleaming Eliada kitchen, Donnell, Alex and Collin work with Chef Donna McCrain to plan ESTA’s next catering event. With mountain apples at their peak, they’ll cook apple butter for fresh-baked bread. They mixed up a sourdough starter on Monday.

As they run through their menus, they tantalize a visitor with lists of favorite dishes. Knot rolls dotted with muscadine jam. Sweet potatoes drizzled with honey butter. Fresh-squeezed lemonade spiked with cranberry juice.

In the past two years, Eliada Homes decreased its use of canned and processed food to 10 percent, which earned it a “Best Practices Award” from the USDA. Upright says ESTA has helped the organization offer healthier meals.

“All the students work 16 hours a week for me,” says McCrain, ESTA’s chef/instructor. “They’re either working down here in this kitchen helping us prepare food for the next meals, or they’re working in the cafeteria serving the students on campus. And we do a lot of field trips so they can get out and see how other chefs are doing things.”

They visited a trout farm, for example, and attended a food show in Tennessee. By the program’s end, they’ll have earned the ServSafe certificate that’s required for full-time restaurant managers in North Carolina.

“I feel like this is going to give us the experience we need to further ourselves,” Collin says. “If we don’t see ourselves doing this in the future, it will give us a job to help us work through college and then hopefully get us to where we want to be in life.”

Donnell agrees. His dream is to finish the program “with flying colors,” and then open a restaurant in Manhattan. Chef Donna will be his first guest.

“People have always told me that for every setback, there’s an equal or greater opportunity for a comeback," he says. "And this right here is the biggest comeback I can think of.”

Find more information about ESTA or call 828.254.5356.

Contact Us

Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director of Child Care


Related Work

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