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Donors Help Youths to Stand on Their Own

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The worst thing about living in a group home was not the rules, or the food or being away from family. The worst thing about living in a group home was leaving it.

For Dawn Hamilton, growing up in a Five Acres group home in Altadena felt like being with family. The staff and other youngsters loved her, and she knew it. As a teen, she also knew the grim statistics about foster children who leave the system: About 25% become homeless, 30% go on welfare, 45% are unemployed.

Even as Hamilton felt the “going-away-to-college jitters” and the uncertainty of leaving the only stable home she had ever known, she also had a cache of life skills. A scholarship fund and emancipation program set up by donors Merrill and Donivee Nash of Arcadia had made sure of that.

“They taught us how to budget, how to save money, even how to change a tire,” said the 21-year-old. “We learned things you’d learn in a family. I think Five Acres kids are more prepared than most.”

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Based in Altadena, Five Acres is a nonprofit therapeutic treatment and education center for abused and neglected children. Often, children arrive at Five Acres’ door with numerous unsuccessful placements in foster and group homes on their records. Hamilton had 17.

Some, like Hamilton, stay because they have no possibility of ever returning to their families. They live in one of four group homes in Pasadena or Altadena. For Five Acres, there is a dual task: Staff members seek to repair years of damage and abuse. They also prepare teens for when they turn 18 and must leave.

“They started from Day One, molding me into the man I am today,” said Christopher Michael James Ervin, a 19-year-old Cal State Northridge student, who now lives on campus. “They helped me be able to stand on my own feet.”

The work begins well before they reach 18. To get children ready for college, the fund often pays for tutoring and private schools. The emancipation program teaches them an array of coping mechanisms and life skills, from how to dress appropriately to being on time.

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Once emancipated, youths can call up staffer Mona Luther, a beloved grandmother figure, for help with rent, furniture, tuition--even car repairs. Assistance is not limited to the college-bound. One student is in culinary school; another is at drafting school.

“All we want to do is help them become happy, productive, self-sufficient adults,” said Donivee Nash, who has served as head of the scholarship committee.

The Nashes, a retired couple who once owned a company that manufactured forming systems for concrete, were searching for a charitable cause when they visited Five Acres. Though impressed with the organization, which was founded in 1888 as an orphanage, they saw a gap: At 18, the children “were just sort of turned loose,” Donivee Nash said. “We thought something ought to be done to help them make the transition.”

There is some governmental assistance to support the educational pursuits of post-18-year-old teens who have been in foster care or residential programs. “But it’s not sufficient,” said Cathy Clement, Five Acres development director. “The Nashes are committed to bridging the gap.

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“It’s very hands-on philanthropy. You get to see very soon the benefits of your giving.”

In 1988, the couple made a donation that has since grown to a fund of more than half a million dollars--and has assisted more than 30 young people so far.

Hamilton arrived at Five Acres when she was 5. The domestic violence, abuse and mental illness in her own home meant she would spend the rest of her childhood there.

Even with the home’s support and under the watchful eye of Jackie Perry, a now-deceased group home manager she lovingly called Mom, Hamilton had a hard time from 12 to 15. She experimented with marijuana and boys and once attempted suicide, she said. She questioned God.

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“When I was bad and doing the worst things, [Perry] punished me, but I knew she loved me, and that’s what broke through to me,” Hamilton said.

The fund sent Hamilton, an honor student, to a private high school, where she flourished--and where she discovered a faith that has helped her see her difficult past through a different prism. One night, she was riding in a van with her group home family when she spotted her father, tattered and dirty, sitting on a bus bench.

“Even though he was homeless, he was reading his Bible. I just broke down and cried,” she recalled.

At home, she prayed, pleading for help for her father, once the object of her anger. She emerged changed, having decided to give her life to God.

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Now a student at Biola University, a religious college in La Mirada, she said her goal is to be a nurse and to continue surviving on her own. Holidays are still tough, she said, especially when the dorm is shut down and she has to spend time at friends’ homes. Because of the fund, she is in school and housed during the summer months.

“I wish there were more people like her in the world,” she said of Donivee Nash. “God will bless her many times over for everything she’s done.”

Ervin was a confused and emotionally battered 10-year-old when he arrived at Five Acres. He had already been in nearly 30 homes. Perry promised him that his moving days were over.

“At the time, I took that with a grain of salt because of what I had been through,” Ervin said.

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Abandoned by a drug-addicted mother, who once kidnapped him from a home, and by a father who was never around, Ervin had had no parental figure in his life, and he had no confidence. Because of a malformed jaw, he was the brunt of teasing and jokes.

“I didn’t fit in anywhere,” Ervin said. “I was a troubled child.”

But year after year, he saw Perry’s promise fulfilled. The staff there helped him wade through the muck of his past until the future became clearer.

Five Acres helped arrange for the successful surgery that repaired his jaw and is helping him with his college education.

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Now, like Hamilton, his talk is mostly focused on plans for the future: a career in real estate, a wife, kids, a home. His family, he hopes, will have everything he missed.

Their lives might have turned out very differently, had it not been for Five Acres and the fund started by the Nashes, Hamilton said.

“Foster kids without an organization like Five Acres--how do they do it?” Hamilton asked.


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