Seattle nonprofit opens home for youth locally

Make-a-Wish Foundation co-founder on hand for dedication
By Cheryl Aarnio | Aug 08, 2019
Courtesy of: Cheryl Aarnio Angie Christensen, Level Up Seattle's executive director, and Make-A-Wish Foundation co-founder Frank Shankwitz at the opening of Level Up’s first foster home in the area.

Ten young adults will soon live in a house in the Picnic Point area as part of Level Up Seattle’s mission to house and educate homeless and former foster youth from age 18 to 24.

When Katrina Eileen Romatowski, Level Up Seattle’s founder, started working as an advocate for foster children, she said she found it “shocking” that the foster care system stopped providing care to children when they turned 18, even if they were in the middle of 12th grade.

Less than 50% of children in the foster system graduate high school.

“At 18, you're not equipped to go out with no support and just figure it all out on your own,” she said.

That is where Level Up Seattle is stepping in for certain homeless and former foster youth. The house north of 148th Street SW, between Edmonds and Mukilteo in unincorporated Snohomish County, is the organization’s first.

“While it is an Edmonds address, the house is in Mukilteo School District,” Eileen Romatowski said.

“Many of the youth who would be living in the home fall under the McKinney-Vento Act, which would allow them the option to go to either Mukilteo or Edmonds schools, which is part of why we liked this location. Additionally, while we are not within the Edmonds city limits, we have experienced an outpouring of support from Edmonds Chamber of Commerce as well as businesses and residents.

“The Edmonds School District has a very strong need; they have a very strong school district that can benefit our youth. We had a property that was well suited for the experience we are working to create and give our youth.”

On July 26, a ribbon cutting was held to celebrate, co-hosted by Level Up Seattle and Love Recklessly, an Edmonds organization that gives support to families impacted by foster care. Among those in attendance were Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan and Edmonds Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Greg Urban.

“It was interesting to hear about the nonprofit Level Up Seattle and this particular residence for young adults,” Compaan said. “My understanding is the nonprofit will be providing transitional housing there for up to 10 residents ages 18-24, with a primary goal of helping residents with occupational and educational opportunities.

“It was interesting from my standpoint to learn about the organization and the collaboration they have with various other social service agencies, schools, and individuals, to include co-founder of Make-A Wish-Foundation, Frank Shankwitz, who was in attendance.”

Level Up Seattle is now accepting applications and interviewing applicants to live in the house, and hopes to house all 10 adults by Aug. 15. A residential house manager will live with them.

“We’re going to make sure that we do it right, so we are not putting huge pressure on that date, but that's the goal,” said Eileen Romatowski.

“Every day that goes by that the house isn't full is a day that goes by that could be a roof over someone’s head, and not just a roof over their head but a home, and a home they can be proud of. We worked really hard to have it be a place that is welcoming and where someone would want to be.”

Many conventional residential zoning laws have a requirement stating that there can only be so many unrelated individuals in a house, one of the reasons children in foster care may be forced to find somewhere else to live.

This made Edmonds a good place for Level Up Seattle’s first house, Eileen Romatowski said, because zoning laws where the house is allow for more than five unrelated individuals in a house.

But there are foster children who feel “misused” by the system, and who may have been placed with seven or eight foster families, said Angie Christensen, Level Up Seattle’s executive director. Often, these children do not trust or want to stay in the system, even though it provides services, such as scholarships and free dental and medical care.

“We’re looking to be that stopgap that prevents them from coming into the homeless organizations that I've been working with,” Christensen said. “We're trying to bring them in at a time when their adolescent brains are still developing, and they're still learning how to form those better habits that will carry them through (life).”

Christensen said they are looking for applicants who show an interest and drive to reach their highest potential.

The young adults will live in dormitory-style rooms with a roommate. They will take life skills classes, such as financial literacy, personal care, and cooking.

Young adults without a high school diploma will attend high school, but will also have access to tutors.

Weekly meetings will cover chores and schedules.

“With young adults who have either been homeless or have been without (biological) parents for a while, holidays, birthdays, and other times of the year can be particularly difficult, so those weekly house meetings are also a chance to decide ahead of time what that Christmas Day, what that one individual's birthday might look like,” Christensen said.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Shankwitz said he is a retired police officer, and has seen many foster children involved with drugs, burglaries, or robberies because they do not have any guidance.

“I think this is just something that they need,” he said. “I've never heard of anything like this for the foster children, how to help them, how to give a boost, how to take care of them. Just a great concept.”

Christensen said she knows someone who aged out of the foster system seven years ago. His caseworker picked him up and offered to drop him off wherever he wanted. She took him to the park that he asked to go to, gave him $20 and a bag with clothing donations, and left.

“And that for him was one of those moments that has continued to inform what he has done with his life. [He did] not let that stop him,” Christensen said.

While foster children who age out of the system are eligible for certain services, Eileen Romatowski said she does not think that is enough. It needs to be about human engagement, about having people who care about and believe in them and people who they believe in.

“I think there's so much that we can do as a community to just wrap around these kids,” she said, “and help them really learn what they're capable of and see a different life for themselves.”

 

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