The program, according to ODCH President Gretta Wilson, is a way to meet the needs of teens who were aging out of the child welfare system. Often with nomadic histories of multiple placements — in foster homes, with relatives and in residential group homes — these youths lacked the fundamental life skills to succeed on their own, and the ODCH Board of Directors recognized the need for a program to coach and support them during the transition.
During Thursday’s ribbon cutting, Tim White, the ODCH life coach, was joined by Wilson, 38 board members, former board members and other honored guests.
Through the generous support of the community and many individual and corporate benefactors, the ODCH opened the new program in two remodeled homes — one for five young men and one for three young women — adjacent to its main facility in West Rome.
“In this program, they’re going to have to graduate from high school before they can go into the house, and they’re going to have to be enrolled in either technical college or college,” Wilson said.
Bob Norton, a licensed psychologist and board member, said the home will help the teens hone life experiences pertinent to succeeding in the real world.
“Because of the regulations with foster care and group homes, teenagers were constrained and not able to have normal developmental experiences,” he said, with Wilson adding that these included basic freedoms such as going to the movies, hanging out with friends, dating and driving.
“When they turn 18 they haven’t had these foundational experiences, and then they’re out there on their own,” Norton said. “They’re with us because they don’t have families that are able to support them. They were just floundering.”
Under the Independent Living Program, White will act as a mentor to the teens who choose to participate in the program.
“He’ll help them establish a bank account, teach them how to save,” Wilson said. “The state will reimburse us for part of the cost. We plan to charge them — based on what salary they’re making — rent, and as they get a better job, then we’ll increase the rent.”
Wilson said the teens’ earnings will end up helping them establish new lives.
“We’re going to put all of that rent money into a savings account, so when they really are ready to go totally on their own, that will be there for them to have to set up their own apartment or wherever they’re going to live,” she said.
Participating teens will have to sign themselves back into custody, Wilson said, but they understand that continuing to live at the home will benefit them in the long run.
Additionally, the teenagers will have more freedoms than they did as minors.
“It really is a completely different philosophical approach than what we need to do when they’re in our care at the residence,” Norton said. “It’s a very exciting day for the Open Door Children’s Home and for the kids in the community. I think people have an image of what the Open Door Home is, but it’s really becoming something much bigger and much more dynamic, and that’s exciting.”