Foster kids find new path
Zach Brown took a long, treacherous route to adulthood. At age 5 he was adopted by his grandparents, but when his behavior both at home and school got out of hand, he was sent back into foster care. Separated from his half-sisters, he was again adopted at the age of 12. A troubled kid, Brown admits he was hard to handle.
“I was always rebelling, getting into trouble at school,” he said. “At home I just couldn’t seem to bond with my new mom.”
Just after his 18th birthday, he got into another fight with his mom over some of his belongings that were missing. He went to school, believing everything was fine, only to come home to a note, informing him to find another place to live.
With no place else to turn, the Winter Park High School senior spent time at friends’ houses, even sleeping in a friend’s closet, until he ended up being invited to stay with his girlfriend’s family.
He stayed there for a couple of months until a spot opened up for him at Covenant House, a group home facility for homeless teens and young adults.
Then Robin McLeod, of Walk Their Shoes Inc., came into his life.
McLeod is a volunteer guardian ad litem for the 18th Judicial Court and said she personally knows the needs of teens aging out of foster care.
She herself was once a ward of the courts, and knows well the difficulties of making the transition to adulthood with little to no help.
Walk Their Shoes is having a chili cook-off, hosted by Hourglass Brewery of Longwood on Saturday, Feb. 22, from 4 to 6 p.m. with all proceeds benefiting the charity. The cost is $10 to enter the contest, $5 to taste the entries. You also get $1 off beer with admission. The grand prize is $250. Visit walktheirshoes.com for more information on the cause.
The mission of Oviedo-based Walk Their Shoes is to provide individualized assistance to teens ageing out of foster care in the way of transportation, childcare, or help getting or furnishing an apartment.
Everyone who receives assistance is also required to pay it forward in some way, by speaking to middle or high school kids or volunteering at local charities.
“While Zach did not strictly age out of foster care, he still needed a lot of help get a firm footing in life,” McLeod said.
The state of Florida recently recognized the needs of kids like Brown by passing new legislation that went into effect Jan. 1.
The law, called the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act, allows kids in foster care to remain there until age 21 (previously 18) as long as they meet certain conditions, the goal being to give them more time to progress into adulthood while still having a stable home base.
While Brown’s situation is different from those in foster care, his needs are not.
McLeod stepped in during one of Brown’s darkest hours and helped him take important steps toward a good future.
“I wasn’t expecting anyone to help,” Brown said. “Then suddenly she was there. She just has this vibe, this attitude that says everything is going to be OK.”
“I realized I can’t do this by myself, I need support, and Ms. Robin was there for me.”
Nearly a year after entering Covenant House, Brown moved into his first apartment this past December.
McLeod provided Brown with living room furniture and took him shopping for essentials like dishes and clothes to furnish his new place.
Just a few weeks ago, he bought his first car, a 2005 Chevy Cobalt. Brown still has the bike he received through McLeod from an anonymous donor. Until he got the car, his trusty bike was what got him back and forth to his job washing cars at Fields BMW.
Now 19 years old, Brown dreams of moving up at the car dealership, perhaps going into management.
He got his GED while at Covenant House — a month earlier than he would have graduated from high school — and hasn’t ruled out going to college one day.
With a steady job, a stable home and a vehicle, things are looking up for Brown, but there is one important element missing in his life.
“I’d still like to have the kind of family I always wanted. I’d like to be a good dad someday and raise a family the way I wish I had been raised,” he said.
Until then, McLeod and her family have taken Brown under their wing.
“We still talk or text at least once a day,” she said.
“Ms. Robin treats me like family,” Brown said. “I can always come back to her, knowing she will be there.”
Brown said just knowing that someone is there for him makes all the difference.