Recent graduate Molene Henderson poses with her mentor, Sharrie Wunder, at the Santa Monica YWCA's Transitional Housing and Education Program for young women leaving foster care.
Former foster care girls currently at the YWCA - and others who’ve moved on - hang out, cook, and make festive ornaments. The transitional housing program aims to help girls land on their feet, after they age out of foster care.
When children turn 18-years-old, they’re released from the court system and are free to live their own lives. But the program’s housing director, Sharrie Wunder says most of these young women aren’t emotionally, or professional prepared to take care of themselves.
"We are saying we want to give them a little more time," said Wunder. "So they can further their education and actually have built some skills to have a job that will pay a living wage.”
The program accommodates eight girls at a time. They live rent-free in a sprawling 7,000 square-foot Victorian house with gently-worn elegant furnishings. But they have to study full time and work part time.
Recent graduate Molene Henderson says without the extra support, she wouldn't have finished her bachelor's degree.
"I wouldn't be able to take care of myself," she said. "I wouldn't be the independent strong person that I am today."
Henderson expects to graduate next spring with a degree in health and human services from California State University, Dominguez Hills.
The 26-year-old mother was a drug addict, she said, so child welfare officials removed her and her three siblings from their home when she was 6-years-old. Henderson grew up in Northern California with a series of relatives. These days, she jokes with her YWCA mentor, Wunder, about graduate school.
" ...Um, I'm thinking social work," said Henderson.
"There ya' go!" Wunder replied.
Wunder said much of the program's success involves teaching young women, such as Henderson, how to make good, healthy choices, which includes dating. Residents are free to have boyfriends and spend nights out, so long as housing staff approves of the young men ahead of time.
"We do have a curfew," Wunder said. "One of our cardinal rules is they are not allowed to date anyone who's abusive. That person is not welcome on our site."
The program tries to offer these young women about three secure years to earn degrees that will steer them toward stable jobs. About 45 girls have benefited from the program since its doors opened 11 years ago. The operation is privately funded. Organizers rely on volunteers for donations, workshops and tutoring.