PHOENIX — In her young life, it has been a long time since Nichole Dikeman has had a place she could truly call home. She has never had a place she could call her own. Since the age of 16, as she puts it, she has "bounced around" Arizona's foster care system, living in one group facility after another.
"It took a lot of my vital years from me," she said. "So everything I could have been doing to prepare for being an adult, I didn’t have that because I didn’t have the stability of being in one place for a long enough time to start."
Dikeman, now 19, is part of a program focused on resolving an enormous concern in Arizona's foster care system: how to help young people who "age out" of the system. When foster children turn 18, the state no longer provides financial support. Advocates say, as many as half of those who age out become homeless.
A joint effort between Foster 360 and Arizona's Children Association, the program provides low-cost housing, allowing young adults with similar experiences to live in the same complex, building a support system of their own. The program also provides help with completing their education, job hunting and mentors.
The intensive effort lasts two years, and it is meant to reverse behaviors which are often engrained in the mindset of foster kids.
"I still feel like things could come crashing down any moment," Dikeman said. "I get into this mindset where I think this is too much and I’m not going to be able to do it. It’s hard, but I’m glad I’m in a place where I can work on it."
When kids experience trauma during their formative years, advocates say, they are just wired differently. "What you perceive as positive events are not necessarily perceived the same way by someone who was traumatized," said Candice Liozu, program director with Foster 360. "Their brains are normalized to the negative patterns that were created over and over and repeated."
The program is funded through donations, in part through the Mesa United Way. Dikeman, and five other young adults, live in several units of a rehabilitated apartment complex in central Phoenix. Counselors periodically check in with residents to make sure they're pursuing goals of education and finding a steady job.
Dikeman is working to finish up a few high school credits, and hopes to go to cosmetology college. For the first time in a long time, she feels hopeful. "I like to think that I got lucky by being accepted into this place."
The program still needs mentors, and you can help by clicking here.