What happens when a child in care in Colombia reaches the age of 18 and has to leave the home where they have lived for many years? What if, as is often the case, they have no parents, no support, haven’t finished school and they don’t know how to live alone? What if a little help in the first couple of years of independent living could mean the difference between a rich and fulfilling life or a life spent on the streets?
Fundación Formación d´Futuros (the Forming Futures Foundation) (FFF) is working to address these questions and many others. They run a halfway house where young care leavers can live for up to two years in preparation for fully independent living. They also have an amazing early intervention programme which prepares children in care for adjusting to adult life.
We visited FFF on Friday, and were fortunate to be able to have lunch with Martha, the charity’s Executive Director. She talked nineteen to the dozen, describing with great animation (and evident care) the ups and downs of working with teenagers and young people. Martha has an air of profound respect for each young person, coupled with an expectation that they will take responsibility for their life and future. She and her colleagues never tell the young people what to do, but guide them gently and firmly into independence.
When they first join the halfway house, a young person is lent a mattress and a set of bedding. They must return these at the end when they leave and are expected to buy a bed frame themselves when they are earning. Each young person is given financial advice and support, and learns how to budget, save, cook and manage a house. As time goes on, they are expected to seek and eventually find permanent work. After two years they must leave and set up on their own. There are no exceptions.
My own story
As well as working directly with care leavers, FFF runs an early intervention programme for 300 children aged 14-17 who are currently living in care. Over the course of the year they do a programme covering five different areas:
- Communication – helping them to open up and become confident and fluent. Many children in care are very shy and withdrawn. Activities in this module are designed to help them grow in confidence and self-expression.
- Vocation – exploring what the young person wants to do with their life, what their strengths are, and how to achieve their aim. FFF has links with colleges and often arranges work experience.
- My Body – sexual and reproductive health and drugs. Apparently this is the most popular module with the young people!
- We are citizens – learning about their rights and obligations as citizens, and also the services that are available to them.
- My Own Story – in which the young people apply everything they have learnt to their own life and situation, and make a life plan for their future.
Bienvenido a nuestro hogar – welcome to our home!
After hearing all about the project, it was time to visit the two houses, where small groups of young people are living before setting out on their own. When we left on foot we were with just one lad, Pedro*, but as we walked, many more joined us – girls and boys. We walked through the hot Cali streets with them, chatting about Colombia, England, family, friends, football, ambition, hopes and dreams, and everything in between.
Then we were at the lads’ house. It was by a busy road in a not- too-good but not-too-bad part of town. Before they gave us a tour we sat in a circle in their front room, drank fizzy drink, ate crisps and talked. It was so simple, but so amazingly special.
Each one of them told us a little about what they want to do with their life. As they spoke, an atmosphere of hope and slight apprehension hung in the air. There was such a range of characters and ambition. We will introduce you to just two of the young people, as there is not time for more.
Diana* wants to be a nurse. She is studying hard – simultaneously catching up with school, doing vocational trianing and working. She is thoughtful, quiet, quick-witted. Julian* wants to have a business making and selling jewellery. He is studying web design. He is warm, grounded, open, with a dazzling, welcoming smile. They were all such lovely young people with amazing sueños (dreams).
The grand tour and the big wide world
Then there was the tour of both the homes – the laughter, questions and chaos. Do they get on? Más o menos (more or less)! Who does the cooking? They take it in turns – much debate as to who is the worst! Who does the cleaning? In theory or practise? A freezer full of pears and pans piled high in the kitchen…
It was all somehow reminicent of student digs. Young people setting out on their own, learning to live as adults. But the difference is that these young people have no backup plan. No parents to fall back on. No family home to go to. Without the support of FFF they would be completely on their own.
On they day we were there it was Lorena´s* birthday. She is 22. In a few weeks she will be leaving the halfway house. She is nervous but excited, ready to face the adult world thanks to the support she has had here.
As we left, we felt very aware of how a child´s background and experience might affect their future. But we also left with the reassurance that FFF will help these vulnerable children over the first hurdle and into a secure adult life.
What an amazing project, unlocking the potential of these amazing young people. We were blown away!
Hannah and Emily
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of the young people.