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‘Uncle Louis’ gives back

Former foster child works to make the system better

(Published May 21, 2001)

By MARY RECHICHAR

Staff Writer

To passersby, recent renovations at 2779 and 2801 Naylor Road SE may appear to be simply a much-needed makeover of two run-down group homes. But to Louis Henderson, it represents part of his life’s work.

Henderson, founder and president of the National Association of Former Foster Care Children of America Inc. (NAFFCCA), says he has committed his life to helping foster children make it on their own.

"I believe this is my purpose," said the 39-year-old former foster child. "You can’t really live until you’ve identified your purpose."

Because Henderson grew up in the system, he said he can relate and connect on a personal level with the kids he’s trying to help.

"When they say ‘You don’t know what I’ve been through,’ I can say ‘Yes, I do,’" he said. "I just wanted to let kids know that there’s someone who went through foster care who cares about them."

The two transitional living facilities in Southeast Washington that NAFFCCA recently took over are home to 20 girls who are wards of the city because of abuse or neglect. NAFFCCA’s goal is to gradually move participants from transitional living facilities to living independently.

Henderson, who entered foster care at age 3, said he plans to dedicate both of the group homes to his foster mother as a token of his appreciation. He said he doesn’t plan on having a grand opening or even an open house for the new Mary E. Taylor Home for Girls.

"It’s more important that she knows than to have a big to-do," he said.

Mary and her husband Floyd adopted seven children and helped raise 34 foster children.

NAFFCCA is a nonprofit organization founded in 1994 primarily to offer support and counseling to "the youth who are often least-well served by traditional foster care and independent living programs," according to the organization’s brochure. The foster children who come to NAFFCCA are sent by the courts for a variety of reasons – because they were neglected or abused, they flunked out of another foster care program, they’re too old to be placed in a foster home, or their goal is to be independent.

For Henderson, growing up in the foster care system was lonely and he said he didn’t know whom he could trust. Now he sees young people going through the same experiences and he wants to change that.

"I’m making sure they have a clean, safe environment," he said.

Before NAFFCCA was founded, Henderson worked for the United Black Fund. He said he was coordinating a kickoff campaign for United Way-United Black Fund when he saw a young man go on stage and speak about another foster care program. The man talked about how wonderful the program was and how much it had done for him growing up under its care. Henderson said he later learned that the organization had paid him $25 to speak on its behalf more than 10 years later.

"That’s when I realized that kids were still being exploited by the system," Henderson said.

NAFFCCA began as a single-person operation out of a one-bedroom apartment in Edgewood. From that it has grown to 55 full-time and part-time employees, two outside offices in addition to the headquarters at the Rhode Island Avenue Shopping Center in Northeast Washington and hopes to expand into Maryland within the next six months.

Henderson held a workshop in Atlanta last December for more than 200 teens on how to budget their money for Christmas. Illinois State Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford even wrote him a letter asking him to replicate the program in her Chicago district. She deals with over 4,000 cases of foster children in her district, she said, and when most foster children are released from the department of corrections, they have nowhere to go.

"His whole piece on independent living was an attraction," Lightford said.

Since its founding, Henderson said NAFFCCA has helped hundreds of foster children transition to adulthood. Once out of the transitional phase, the participants are provided with a furnished apartment by NAFFCCA, which pays their rent until age 21. It’s up to the young person to keep it maintained. Instead of placing the participants in the same apartment complex, they’re scattered so they have more of a community environment and not just another group home experience.

Through the organization, these participants are trained in basic living skills, such as balancing a checkbook, cooking, shopping, behaving appropriately and taking care of themselves. In addition to rent money, they’re also given an allowance for food, transportation and clothing. However, any request for money is evaluated.

Participants may remain in the program until they’re 21. If they stay with the program until then, they receive a certificate of completion and can keep any furnishings that they had in their apartment. After that, they’re on their own but can still keep in contact with NAFFCCA for emotional support.

Abuse is one of the things that Henderson said he works the hardest against – in part, because his brother was abused as a child.

"That’s why I’m so tough on abuse," Henderson said. "That’s one of the things that drives me every day."

Sometimes it can seem like a thankless job, he said, but his commitment keeps him going. Henderson said he finds himself counseling his staff so they understand why a kid treated them disrespectfully.

Some of the kids "may curse you out, and the next hour they have their arms around you like they forgot what happened," he said.

In founding NAFFCCA, Henderson said he created an organization to give kids the love and respect they crave but seldom received in foster care. Some of the kids even call Henderson "Uncle Louis" or "Father." He recalled an incident when a program participant called him at 3 a.m., complaining of chest pains. He advised calling an ambulance, then called another person in the same apartment complex to assist.

"I told them to ride with them to the hospital and I’d meet them there," he said. "They know they can get a hold of me anytime."

Henderson’s latest project is renovating the two transitional facilities on Naylor Road. On March 1, NAFFCCA took over the former Jennings Progressive Group Home and began renovations.

"He did a complete transitional change," said Jacqulyn Arrington, administrative assistant. "The District was threatening to put a ‘clean it or lean it’ on the building."

The two transitional facilities each house 10 girls, ages ranging from 13 to 21. The first house is finished and Arrington said the new furnishings seem to motivate the kids to be more responsible.

"We still have to nudge them, but they don’t give us much of a fight about their chores anymore," Arrington said.

Everything is new, from floors and ceilings to bathroom décor.

"Between structural cost and furnishing, it will be roughly $45,000," said Roger Otchere, chief financial officer at NAFFCA. "We’re estimating the same amount for the second house."

The second home’s renovations begin in June.

"It’s pretty dilapidated, not fit," said Jacqueline Townes, program director of eight years at the transitional living facility.

Christine Wheeler, placement and monitoring program manager at the District’s Child and Family Services Agency which funds Henderson’s program, said that most kids in the NAFFCCA program have flunked out of every placement program they’ve been in.

"Once they’re placed in NAFFCCA, they maintain placement," she said. "Most of them are decent kids who are just emotionally disturbed."

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator