LAKEWOOD RANCH — East County resident Diane Battle always has had a heart for helping children in need. Years ago, she and her family opened their home to foster children. She also works with children with autism at The Pinnacle Academy in Lakewood Ranch.
And for the past two-and-one-half years, she’s served as a mentor for Joining Our Youth, a non-profit organization that assists young adults aging out of foster care.
“You’re not their parent; you’re really there to listen,” Battle says of her work with JOY. “A lot of these kids don’t have anyone to talk to.”
Co-founders Tish FitzGerald and Mary King launched JOY about three-and-one-half years ago after FitzGerald toured a shelter for teenagers. FitzGerald, a longtime fundraising consultant for the Guardian ad Litem program, was looking for new ways to help.
“At the end of that tour, I asked, ‘What can we do for these children?’” she said. “And what they told us was that these children really just wanted someone to talk to who wasn’t in the system.”
From there, FitzGerald and King launched JOY to assist teenagers who were leaving the foster care system and heading into adulthood. They enlisted the help of University of South Florida Behavioral Analyst Randi Pickle, who developed a curriculum to train mentors such as Battle to become “certified listeners.”
Currently, JOY has 51 mentors and always could use more. About 60 teens age out of foster care each year, FitzGerald said.
“These kids are used to people drifting in and out of their lives,” Battle says. “(As mentors), we try to meet once a week, and we make a commitment for at least one year.”
Sometimes, the teens have specific questions about basic life skills such as finding a job or living in an apartment. Other times, they just want to talk about a movie they saw.
“You just try to help them out as best as you can,” Battle says.
Because the needs of each teen vary, so does the job of the mentor. However, although the job required may differ from teen to teen, the resulting benefits can be tremendous in each teen’s life, FitzGerald said.
“They need role models,” she said. “Children have so many different needs. And I always say, ‘If you don’t know, you can’t care.’”
In addition to the mentor program, JOY also assists the teenagers as they move into their first homes. FitzGerald worked to find donors to develop the organization’s Housekeeping Starter Kits, which contain 52 essential items for bathrooms, bedrooms and kitchens. The organization also has been able to donate bicycles, helmets, padlocks and bus passes to help the teens get to either school or work.
Most recently, JOY hosted its Brown Paper Bag party, during which the organization exchanged a brown bag lunch for gently used clothing. Later this month, FitzGerald hopes to open JOY’s Trendy Teen Thrift Shoppe, a volunteer-run shop to give teenagers a way to piece together outfits for job interviews.
“These kids are used to going home to no one,” FitzGerald said. “And in school, their peers were merciless. Some of them have been abused, neglected or abandoned. Through JOY, we hope with our mentors that they can develop an extended family.”
“For these kids — it’s not their fault,” she said. “They did not make this problem, but there is such a need. And we’re just trying to do our small part to help.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].
Joining Our Youth
For more information, to volunteer or to make a donation to Joining Our Youth, call co-founder Tish FitzGerald, 360-9207, or visit joysarasota.org.