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The 411 on FYI

By Michael Timm

Homelessness, poverty, crime, unplanned pregnancy, sexual abuse, and underemployment are very real threats to thousands of young people nationwide who “age out” of the foster care or other out-of-home care systems.

Upon turning 18, they are cut off from the state support system. If they have not been prepared for social and economic independence, these “emancipated” youth can end up inside a spiral of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Only one in ten go on to college.

In Milwaukee, Foster Youth Independence Center – the only agency in the state dedicated solely to helping this population achieve independence – is on the brink of expansion. Founded in 2004 and opened in 2005, FYI has been at 604 E. Center St. since then. To date, it’s served an estimated 100 youth in out-ofhome care, said James Pekrul, FYI founder and executive director.

In May, in addition to ongoing independence training and preparation programs, FYI housed the first of six people in its new housing program, which was piloted with three clients in 2006.

In the program, FYI works with aging-out youth to find suitable housing near their social support systems. Finding understanding landlords can be tricky, explains Pekrul, because, “Who wants to rent to a 17-yearold?”

FYI pays the first few months of rent, then subsidizes subsequent months as the youth finishes high school or seeks employment. The idea is to provide the activation energy that many families afford their children in times of transition – but which many out-of-home care youth lack.

“You cannot survive on a high school diploma alone,” observes Pekrul. “We’re expecting these kids to do it all at 18, and it’s just not fair and it’s not right.” He’d like to see fster care extended to age 21. “Parenting doesn’t stop at 18, so why should foster care?” he asks.

Inspired by his own negative experience as a foster child (he aged out in 1997), Pekrul sees it as his mission to raise awareness about the plight of aging-out youth.

“There’s a lot of interest now in our agency. I hope it’s a way to raise public concern because it’s not acceptable these children are ending up in jail, prostitution, as young parents. We have a moral responsibility – especially when we teach them to depend on the system.”

A Growing Organization

Pekrul said FYI is dealing with a “flood of referrals right now,” from the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare and other agencies. With 20 part- and full-time staff and five consultants, FYI has outgrown its 1,000 square feet.

By the end of 2007, he hopes to expand the center into a vacant building space adjacent to their current space, along Booth Street. That additional 1,700 square feet would include a training center in which clients could interact with a simulated apartment environment.

He also hopes to eventually sublease the center to other social service agencies with complementary specialties, such as mental health or Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) services.

For the expansion, Pekrul said he’s in the process of applying for a capital grant from the Elizabeth A. Brinn Foundation, also FYI’s largest single contributor to date. FYI is also poised to receive $50,000 from the state in each of the next two fiscal years.

Funding is always the biggest challenge for FYI, Pekrul said, partly because it’s a newer organization and partly because people may not think of aging-out youth as “a cause,” like AIDS, diabetes or gay rights.

Pekrul also combats the stereotype that foster kids are automatically trouble. “These people are in other people’s homes not because of something they did but because of circumstance,” he points out. “Foster kids don’t equal bad kids.”

How You Can Help

The grassroots nonprofit FYI looks to the community for support. Pekrul said every little bit helps. For example, he said a $200 check could go toward rent, groceries, a bed or to pay for a kid’s prom or senior pictures. FYI is also always in need of “newer in-kind donations,” like pots, pans, dishes, basic furniture or household appliances. The web address is fyicentermke.org

Riverwest Currents online edition – July, 2007