On the eastern of Exposition Park is USC, the University of Southern California, where students from around the world receive an education ostensibly for their careers.
At the western end of Exposition Park is a lesser known education institution, one where foster youth from Los Angeles receive not only a comprehensive life education, but also a family. This institution is called The Solutions Foundation.
"Before Solutions Foundation, I was walking around dying," says Sharnice, one of the program's clients and most outspoken individuals.
Sharnice, 15, endured a difficult upbringing. Her mother, battling alcoholism and drug abuse, had told her that she was not wanted. With this staunch disapproval, she turned to using drugs. With the use of drugs, she eventually began cutting herself. The cuts are still visible.
By the time she had gotten to the Solutions Foundation, she'd already been through numerous group homes and counselors. She had been openly skeptical, if not defiant of what various social service programs had to offer her.
"It was different here," said Sharnice. "They wanted to know what I was going through."
Her major revelation came during a group discussion on education. One of the counselors was emphasizing "you could take one piece of information and apply it to your life." Sharnice did not pay any mind, initially.
When visiting her mother and away from the program, she got into an argument. Her mother caught her off-balance when she made a powerfully nihilistic statement, "you're going to be just like me." Given her mother's own problems, this was a deep insult to her.
"I had to go back after that," Sharnice said. "It was at that moment I realized why education was so important. I see these people, my mentors with college degrees, and it makes me want to go to college."
Since then, Sharnice has emerged as a mentor for other girls in group homes, a spoken word poet, and aspiring journalist. She credits her transformation to a triumvirate of Solutions Foundations mentors. "They're gods to me. When I come up, the Solutions Foundation is coming right up with me."
Over 80 clients come to the Youth Empowerment program every day. They are referred from group homes from all over Los Angeles County. Many emerge from tumultuous backgrounds involving foster care, domestic abuse and neglect, and drug usage.
Future prospects have tended to look discouraging for foster youth. According to a report from the Institute of Higher Education Policy, approximately only 50% of foster youth graduate from high school. Once they age out of the foster care system at age 18 and are asked to leave the systems of care, over 72% of former foster youth up to age 24 experience unstable employment. One stark statistic revealed at a Committee Hearing found that over 70% of all State penitentiary inmates have spent time in the foster care system. Currently, the State of California is considering legislation that would extend the age to 21.
"If you ask them what they see themselves doing when they grow up, they'll give you a look" says Michael Hudspeth, Executive Director of the Solutions Foundation. "They'll tell you 'they're doing it now."
Hudspeth emphasized the urgency with which his organization addresses the youth.
In addition to intervention services, the Solutions Foundation employs multiple approaches to engage and prepare youth for such abrupt transitions. They hold creative writing classes, college preparation, career development, life skills, and music and arts classes. Clients develop their skills to the point where they recite poetry at open mics, produce songs, and even CD albums.
"We want to provide youth more than just intervention services," said Veda Curry, Director of Community Affairs. "A lot of the money we make goes back to making sure our clients have what they need."
And does this comprehensive approach work? This past June, thirty of their youth graduated from high school.
I asked how he would be able to maintain such success given the amount of time and resources needed. Hudspeth, a veteran of community work for 30 years, left me with this, "If we don't clean up our community, we won't have one. Our kids are the answer."
Overview of The Solutions Foundation
Founded: 1992 as the Miracle Institute, name changed to The Solutions Foundation in 2006
Demographics: Ages 12 - 21 for the youth Empowerment Program for 80 youth.
Also runs an alcohol and drug intervention program for 180 adults.
Address and Contact Information:
3210 West Jefferson Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90018
Phone: (323) 731-4981
What is the organization's vision for the next year and 5 years?
For the next year, attention will be focused on developing a Charter school. In the next 5 years, the Foundation hopes to open 8 satellite schools on a mission to address issues of literacy.
How will funds, donations, and volunteers be used?
The majority of the funds will be used to acquire books and computers. Currently, they have only two computers available for over 260 clients. Their aim is to acquire 20 computers.
Volunteers are utilized to provide tutoring and mentorship.
What organizations, foundations, and influential people have supported the organization before?
The organization receives grant money from the State of California and the County of Los Angeles for its intervention programs.
With some connection to the entertainment industry, the organization has had some support from notable celebrities. The late Isaac Hayes was a direct contributor to the program. Popular 1990s Rapper Doug E. Fresh has been known to drop by. The Music Producer Chris "Cre" Hawkins, who has worked with Michael Jackson, currently works as a voice coach.
Executive Director Michael Hudspeth has been recognized for his work by Senator Diane Feinstein, the Board of Education of Los Angeles, The County of Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and the County of Los Angeles Probation department.
Message to Deliver to Donors, Volunteers, Partners:
The organization is interested in genuine exchange and collaboration with small and big businesses in the community.
How can the community get involved?
Volunteer as a tutor and/or mentor. Email or call Veda Curry at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or (323) 731-4981
Local and big businesses could offer internships to youth to gain valuable experience
Donate here: http://firstgiving.com/vedacurry1