“I saw that today's youth and older people were divided emotionally, physically and socially, and I believed that each was missing exciting opportunities to learn and share.”
As a social worker in Philadelphia years ago, Juanita Suber became keenly aware of the challenges young adults face when they age out of the foster care system. For many, turning 18 is an exciting milestone as they gain the right to vote, graduate from high school and perhaps go off to college or get a full-time job. But these opportunities aren’t always available to young adults when they suddenly lose a place to call home, as well as vital financial and emotional support after their 18th birthdays. “These young people must make the transition to self-sufficiency without the necessary skills or support to become financially independent, socially connected and engaged adults,” Suber says.
So it’s not surprising that by age 21, 26 percent of young adults who’d been in foster care have spent some time homeless, and 25 percent have given birth to or fathered a child during the previous two years, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A third of these young adults don’t earn a high school diploma or GED. Many struggle with substance abuse and live in poverty, and a high percentage have a history of incarceration.
Suber saw these unfortunate patterns playing out again and again and wanted to help. But she filed away this goal while working in Philadelphia to help low-income youth and older adults gain better access to housing, economic resources and other life-changing services through Golden Generations, a nonprofit she co-founded in 1993 with longtime friend Valerie Colquitt Wright.
After moving to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2003, Suber opened a Golden Generations office there, and the organization’s mission evolved. One of the initiatives was an intergenerational project that paired younger women with older women for tutoring, as well as coaching on career and other key life skills. Meanwhile, both generations gained the opportunity to foster vital communication, trust and respect between them. “I saw that today's youth and older people were divided emotionally, physically and socially, and I believed that each was missing exciting opportunities to learn and share,” says Suber, who earned a master’s degree in social work from Temple University. “Women needing that sister love and support from other women was a driving force behind this.”
Because Suber never forgot her dream of creating a safe haven and support system for young women who’ve aged out of the foster care system, she eventually launched My Sistah’s Place. Under the Golden Generations umbrella, My Sistah’s Place is a pilot project that pairs women ages 18 to 21 who are post-foster care with older women mentors in the community to help the younger women maximize their chances of reaching their full potential.
“I was 18 at one time, and I was the first one in my family to attend college,” explains Suber, now 59. “There were people who believed in me while I was on this journey. This is a way to pay that back to the next generation. I want to give these young women some feeling of family and sense of home and the tools they need to be successful.”
Among other services, My Sistah’s Place offers workshops in which experienced older women help the younger generation develop critical job and educational skills, such as how to create a résumé and present themselves in a job interview. They also explore career options and gain other tools to make the transition into adulthood. In addition, the program has conducted clothing drives to provide the young women with appropriate attire for job or college interviews.
Portia Duncan, 18, aged out of the foster care system last year and participated in one of the program’s six-week career workshops. “It opened a lot of doors for me — I learned how to dress for a job interview or a business meeting, how to communicate with people and how to budget my own expenses,” says Duncan, who is now a full-time freshman at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. After the workshop, she adds, “I felt more confident talking to people and using eye contact without being nervous.”
Many of those who volunteer on the giving end find the experience equally gratifying, such as Vernell Harris, who has helped run the workshops. “I haven’t birthed any children, but I have a lot of children [through the program] — I talk to them, give them advice and let them know that somebody cares,” says Harris, who works for the school district in St. Petersburg.
With financial assistance spearheaded by community residents and ongoing support from local government agencies, businesses and corporations, and community organizations, My Sistah’s Place opened a house in 2017 where several young women who are transitioning out of foster care can live. Because Suber wanted the place to be an oasis for the young women, there is a meditation garden and a vegetable garden in the backyard. Next up on Suber’s agenda: opening a house for older women next door to My Sistah’s Place.
“Being able to say yes to the next person who asks me for help builds me up and fills my soul,” Suber says. She’s off to a great start. To date, Golden Generations and My Sistah’s Place have helped more than 500 youths and 200 seniors in the St. Petersburg area.