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Clothes closet’s aim: Help foster children

BRADENTON — Children leaving the foster system will soon have one less thing to worry about.

A clothes closet where those aging out of foster care and entering the adult world can select outfits for work or a job interview has been set up by the Next Step Program.

When kids turn 18 and leave foster care, they face a whole set of problems they likely haven’t considered, including buying work clothes.

“That particular population is extremely vulnerable,” said Judith Watson, director of the Children’s Guardian Fund, a nonprofit that operates Next Step. “It’s too difficult for them to transition and they just drop out of sight.”

Watson also noted the clothing allowance for foster children is $300 a year: “Do you have any idea how far $300 doesn’t go?” she asked.

Located in an unused room at the Manatee County Judicial Center, the closet is filled with racks and racks of clothes and accessories.

Plato’s Closet donated dozens of outfits, as did attorneys and judges at the courthouse. Many are new with designer labels.

Although some kids already have stopped by to pick out clothes, the closet will officially open July 28 with a dedication ceremony.

Foster children 14 and older who aren’t likely to be adopted or live with a relative are eligible to use the closet. It will be open every Tuesday afternoon to coincide with court dates for older children in the foster system.

Manny Hernandez, a staff member with the program, took a 16-year-old foster child to the closet last week. The girl “shopped” for about 30 minutes and finally settled on a pair of jeans and a couple of blouses to wear for a summer office job.

“She came out with a big smile on her face,” he said. “This is something that is really going to make them feel good about themselves.”

Clothes are only one part of Next Step.

Foster children can receive free tutoring to prepare for the FCAT, GED or SAT tests. They also can receive furniture to furnish their apartments when they leave foster care.

“Those kids, when they age out of the system, in the best-case scenario they have a minimum-wage or part-time job,” said Magistrate Susan Maulucci, of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit, who created the Next Step program.

“What we’re trying to do is defray as many expenses for them as possible.”

The program also pairs children in their final year of foster care with a group of three volunteers with expertise in mental heath, legal and financial issues or education. The kids will get to work with the mentors for two years.

The mentoring program kicked off in February as eight teens were paired up with mentors at a picnic.

Mentoring is available to the roughly 50 teens who leave the system each year in Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

There are still kids without mentoring teams. If Maulucci can recruit enough volunteers, she hopes to create new mentoring groups twice a year.

Next Step received a major boost in May when the Children’s Guardian Fund took over the program, Maulucci said.

The charity provides infrastructure and also raises money. As a judge, she cannot personally raise funds for the program.

“We have a foundation to build on,” she said. “It’s not just my idea now.”