When Michael Johnson was living at Ward Home, and it was time to attend one of the program’s college tours, he went reluctantly. For a teen who had come from a home life so difficult that he was placed in the foster care system, what relevance could college have?

“But as soon as he walked on that campus it resonated with him. He immediately felt that was what he wanted,” says Daryl Lucke, Ward Home’s executive director. “So he sat down with his direct care worker and they mapped out a plan for how that could happen for him. Now he’s in his late 20s and he’s on our board,” she says about Johnson, who is a closing coordinator for a title and settlement services company.

Ward Home provides Supervised Independent Living (SIL) programs to more than 60 teens ages 16-20 at any given time at three sites, one each for teen girls, teen boys and teen moms. Founded in 1905, the nonprofit Ward Home emphasizes teaching “practical life skills” to help the teens grow towards adulthood, empowered to live independently as effective, successful, contributing members of the community. It is a living example of the “give them roots and give them wings” approach to raising young people, and Lucke enthusiastically gives examples of alumni who’ve flown highest.

Melody Carter-Frye lived at Ward Home for about four years. “She was someone who wanted to help herself and that’s a key component in success stories for us. Teens that really make it meet us halfway,” Lucke says. After graduating from Ward Home, Carter-Frye now has a PhD in education.

“Melody is married with two children and sits on our board to make sure we stay on target with our programming, implementing what will really help the teens,” Lucke explains. “Our compass each day is ‘how will this help our teens?’ Whether it’s grant writing or administrative decisions or our programming.” With the perspective as both an alumnus and an educator, Carter-Frye is a tremendous help.

The Ward Home statistics are impressive. One hundred percent of Ward Home teens graduate high school or obtain their GED (on average, 90% graduate high school rather than GED). This compares to a national average of only 50% of children in the foster care system achieving the same. Eighty percent of Ward Home teens go on to post-secondary education, compared to just seven percent of the national average.

“We really feel that education is the most important piece towards independence,” Lucke says. “We create individualized programming for each teen, help them set goals, and create a path for their future. We are very focused on what it takes to help move these teens along and what a true path to independence looks like.”

The first step for the Ward Home staff is to address the emotional and psychological component for the teens who come to them, to lay the foundation for the learning and work to come. “Our teens are victims. They’re victims of circumstances that are beyond their control and they’re forced into the foster care system at a time when they are very impressionable,” says Lucke. “We provide a nurturing, home-like environment where they feel comfortable, with staff who are trained to help them address their traumatic backgrounds without re-traumatizing them.”

Self-worth and self-confidence are often missing in the teens when they join Ward Home, and Lucke says correcting that is vital. “They’re worthy of being seen and heard, but they come from a place that they don’t always believe that. So part of our challenge is to instill, in whatever way we can, the confidence in themselves. We help them see their potential and then challenge them to become that person,” she says.

While educational assistance, including tutoring, is important, teaching “practical life skills” is strongly emphasized. These focus on housing, health and safety, and employment, and include everything from budget and financial management, to shopping smartly and healthy cooking and eating habits.

“And we teach interpersonal skills, basic etiquette, conflict resolution, how to maintain your own apartment, how to get a job, and the ‘soft skills’ to help keep it, like how to talk to a supervisor.” Some of these subjects and skills used to be taught in schools in classes like home economics, Lucke points out. For most teens, these skills are learned from parents, but for kids in foster care, the teaching is simply not available.

Keisha, a Ward Home teen, at the 2015 Picture This! fundraiser. The 2016 event will be held March 19.

Keisha, a Ward Home teen, at the 2015 Picture This! fundraiser. The 2016 event will be held March 19.

Picture This!

Creative arts and expression are part of the curriculum at Ward Home, and students will have the opportunity to share some of their works at Ward Home’s fifth annual fundraiser, “Picture This!,” on Saturday, March 19 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Pittsburgh Glass Center in Garfield. The Ward Home teens have been learning photography and glass blowing, and 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of any teen’s work will go into his or her bank account.

Tickets to Picture This! include live glassblowing demonstrations, food and desserts from local establishments, the chance to participate in a community glass mosaic, and a silent auction.

Mostly, Picture This! will be an opportunity to celebrate Ward Home’s current teens, like Keesha, who came to Ward Home because her mother was addicted to drugs. “She’s a great student, high honor roll and has ambitions to move beyond high school so we are supporting her with everything possible to make that goal a reality,” Lucke says. “Her love is sciences, especially physics and chemistry. She’s also a cheerleader, and holds down two part-time jobs while making high honors. Her ultimate goal is to be a pediatrician. She’s incredibly motivated.”

Lucke feels Keesha will one day be like Michael Johnson, Melody Carter-Frye and the many other alumni who return to help the teens at Ward Home. “A lot of our alumni, when they make it, we can count on them for help. They feel a real need to give back, because we’re their family.”

Visit Ward Home online to learn more about supporting their programming, including volunteering, mentoring, donating and signing up for newsletters.