By Richard Mundy
For Hometown News
Cars are increasingly becoming the de facto graduation gift from parents to their offspring as they complete high school.
Not everyone is quite so lucky, but Ormond Beach's Calvary Christian Center, with a program called Excellerate, is trying to correct that. The program's credo is Life Skills Training and Development Program and it is aimed at helping former foster children develop into leaders and positive influences.
Darred Williams, the 25 year-old director of Excellerate, came to Calvary in January 2012. "My primary reason in coming here was to create this program" in collaboration with Pastor Allen Griffin, the program's president and founder, he said.
"Pastor Griffin had a dream of taking care of young people who 'age out' of foster care ... the forgotten children ... and I wanted to serve in mentoring young adults, having been in foster care for seven years," Mr. Williams said. "I understand the difficulties they go through. So between my testimony and work ethic and Pastor Allen's dream and vision and resources we've been able to put this program together."
Mr. Williams was in foster care from age 2 until 10. But he was one of the "lucky" ones. He was adopted. Aging out of foster care usually occurs at age 18 unless they are still in school.
The essence of the program is based on the belief that all young people deserve a chance at a great life. The program's managers believe there is a generation of young people in foster care that are forgotten children. These children have the overwhelming task of growing up with no family, no "forever" home. They want to see children that society calls "at-risk" become powerful leaders and positive influences to others.
Classes are on Sunday afternoons after church services and Thursday evenings. The curriculum is based around five core topics: Spiritual Growth, Professionalism, Financial Responsibility, Social Skills and Life Skills. Through these courses, students are taught how to communicate with God, how to find purpose and heal without scars. They are taught how to get the job they want and impress their boss, as well as how to fall in love with their job and be the best at work. Financial responsibility is taught, from the basics of writing checks to making money to living debt free, and how to find and maintain loving relationships and be successful in every area of life.
Courses are taught by volunteers from the church membership of 3,500 with occasional instructors brought in on specific topics. The program is completely self-sustaining, with even Mr. Williams' salary coming totally from donations and sponsorships that he obtains. The maximum class size is 12 and the goal is to have four classes each year. They have an affiliation with the Community Partnership for Children and the Children's Home Society of Florida to help with informing those aging out of foster care about the program.
Upon graduation from the program, each student is presented with a car.
The earning of a car at graduation from the program is more than just a "set of wheels." It is a source of independence. It enables the young person to get to a job, to have an apartment, to have a social life.
"One of the few perks of having been in foster care is that the state offers a stipend if they meet certain requirements, and it also gives them a voucher for free tuition at any of the state universities. It's one of the benefits of being a state ward," Mr. Williams said. "But the problem is if these students can't get to their classes because of lack of transportation, that voucher is useless to them. Then, because they're not meeting the requirements, they also lose that independent living stipend that helps them live. And because of that, that's how they end up (in unfortunate situations)."
All of the students in the program are college bound, but two of them had difficulty because of not having a vehicle. "One of the young men was sitting in my car and he said 'you don't understand. Having this car is not just a blessing, it's a life-change,' because he's able to get back to school, because he's able to get that stipend instead of struggling to get ahead," Mr. Williams said.
Statistics show 75 percent of prison populations and over half of the homeless population were at one time wards of the state. Programs like Excellerate tackle the realities of the situation before it becomes a problem and burden on society; all the while empowering young people to become productive and benefits to society.
Volunteers are always welcome, Mr. Williams said. He has people volunteering for a variety of things, from donating time or money or skills to just sitting in a classroom and befriending a student or "baby-sitting" for a single mother while she takes a class.
Mr. Williams has an overwhelming passion for this program. His epiphany came about three years ago. He was sitting in a room with five young men, all of whom had unbelievable stories of their lives in the system and what they had been through and how they had overcome adversity. They also had dreams of what they wanted to do, to be, how they wanted to live their lives. However, when Mr. Williams asked them what their next step was to attain that dream, none of them had an answer. After much anguish and prayer Mr. Williams realized that he was being presented with his own passion and ambition and direction.