Video by Roger Newton
MORGANTON, N.C. — A chance invitation freed Elizabeth Turner from the revolving door of the North Carolina foster care system and homelessness and set her on the path to college and a better life.
Turner was living in a foster home — her 27th placement in six years — when she was asked by her case worker if she wanted to participate in a program that helps young people transitioning from foster care.
“I was all for it,” she recalled.
That was more than a year and a half ago. Since then, the 19-year-old has graduated from high school, got her first job, her driver’s license, insurance and a car, and she’s a freshman at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton.
Turner credits her achievements to YV LifeSet, a bridge program offered through Youth Villages to those 15 to 21 years old. Memphis, Tenn.-based Youth Villages has 10 offices in North Carolina: Asheville, Boone, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Greenville, Louisburg, Pinehurst, Raleigh-Durham and Waynesville. It started YV LifeSet in 1999 as a way to help young people leaving the foster care system learn to live independently. She is one of 56 young people in the Asheville area and among 200 statewide participating inYV LifeSet.
While many young people, especially those who have been homeless, may appear streetwise and hardened, they often don’t have simple life skills such as grocery shopping, cooking or learning how to use debit cards. They’re often heavily monitored for safety and legal reasons when in the foster care system.
“[YV LifeSet] helps people start slow and work their way up,” Turner said. “They helped me with skills that I didn’t learn when I was growing up. I wasn’t allowed to drive because social workers thought I’d run off.”
Turner became part of the foster care system at the age of 12 after several attempts to place her and her older sister with relatives didn’t work out. That led to an exhaustive trail of foster homes and eventually hospitalization because she was depressed, anxious and had trouble developing attachments to people.
“In my foster homes, since people didn’t understand me, I felt really bad about myself a lot,” Turner recalled. “I had low self-esteem. I didn’t know how to cope with that. I verbally lashed out and I did self-harm.”
By age 18, she wasn’t emotionally or practically equipped to go out on her own.
She knows now what she didn’t know
“You need to know how to drive. You need to know how to buy a car. You need to know how to get a job and how to commit to a job,” said Turner, who has been homeless twice over the last two years. “People learn helplessness and they get hopeless. They need one-on-one attention. A lot of times they go back to drugs or they keep repeating the same behavior because nobody is giving them attention.”
Turner’sYV LifeSet specialist Laurie Wakefield agrees.
“It’s hard to accept that some of our young adults are like young children,” Wakefield said. “When you’re wondering where’s your next meal or where you’re going to sleep tonight, the idea of applying to college is not on your mind. Your basic need comes first: housing, food, shelter.”
Turner said she spent so much time over the years being shuttled from home to home — as well as motels, shelters and women’s facilities — that she never learned some of the fundamentals that come with growing up in a stable environment. Take grocery shopping.
She recalled how she learned on a grocery shopping trip with Wakefield to look beyond expiration dates on food when shopping and look at lettuce, for instance, to make sure it’s green and not wilted.
“She’s come so far in a such a short time,” Wakefield said. “It makes me nervous when they’re not able to learn independent living skills because of how often they move. It’s so hard to gain support and learn when you move so much. It’s little things we take for granted and we assume everybody else will know it. Just because they’re turning 18, [we think] they automatically get uploaded with all of this knowledge for life.
“There’s a whole generation of 17- to 22-year-olds who’ve fallen through the cracks,” Wakefield said. “They’re on their own and haven’t learned skills to be independent and live prosperous lives. How many kids end up on the street or in prison after they age out of foster care?”
Turner’s ultimate goal?
“I want to help kids who were in situations like me because I feel like God put me through what I went through so that I can help people in the future,” she said recently just before heading into her morning classes. “I feel like that’s my purpose.”
This story has been updated.