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Former foster children give thanks for Casa Valentina

Every holiday season for the last six years, Lynn Hausmann hosts a Thanksgiving gathering for Casa Valentina, the residential and life skills program for youth aging out of foster care.

It’s what you do, she says, for the people you love.

“It’s simple — we are family,” says Hausmann, a member of the organization’s board of directors. “This is about opening your heart and home.”

So on Tuesday, more than two dozen current and former Casa residents and staff gathered around a U-shaped table by the pool of Hausmann’s Coconut Grove condo for the annual celebration.

They started the meal by giving thanks.

For health. And knowledge. And life. And, for Casa Valentina, the program designed to help youth transition from foster care to independence starting at age 18 by providing affordable housing and support and teaching meaningful everyday lessons such as how to balance a checkbook or navigate college admissions, even basic parenting skills.

“Casa Valentina took a chance on me,” says Cliff Innocent, 21, who joined the program last year. Now a student at Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center, Innocent is studying to become a chef. “I always knew I wanted to go to school, but it is Casa that has encouraged me to stay in school and do my best in school.”

The program started in 2006 as a way to help young women leaving Miami-Dade County’s foster care system, so many of them woefully unprepared for the next chapter. The program helped them earn high school diplomas and GEDS, enroll in college and find employment. About 60 young women have participated.

Last year, the organization partnered with other social agencies to create two more tracks for young men and mothers with young children.

This year, there are 22 residents, including 11 young women, seven young men and four mothers.

Participants receive a fully-furnished apartment near public transportation, case management, academic and career counseling and help with accessing healthcare. The program is financed through funding from The Children’s Trust, The Miami Foundation and private donations.

Participants must be in school, which qualifies them for the Florida’s Road to Independence Scholarships, a $1,000 monthly stipend open to former foster children who are passing their classes. The money is used for rent and other expenses.

The celebration started out as a potluck with the staff and some of the clients bringing a dish. It was held on the balcony of Hausmann’s fourth-floor condo. Last year, with the addition of the young men and mothers, they outgrew the space. This year, they moved it poolside.

“I got very involved with the young ladies, checking on them, helping them move into their places, helping them with school, taking them to Big Lots,” Hausmann said. “And then the holiday season came around and I started thinking, where would they go? Some of them don’t have family.”

During this year’s dinner, the residents were also introduced to the new executive director, Deborah Korge, who begins next month.

Katlin Brown joined the program two years ago with dreams of becoming a chef. Now, she is a student at Miami-Dade College graduating in May with a degree in culinary arts. She has plans to eventually open a soul food restaurant, “with an international twist.” She thanks Casa Valentina for much of her success.

“They helped me with so many things that I would not have been able to do myself,” says Brown, 21, who lives in a studio apartment in the Roads section of Miami. “They helped me with school and tutoring. They helped me get my driver’s license. They were a shoulder to cry on too. They taught me how to be a grown-up.”