A jump-start on life

Little things mean a lot to kids who age out of county foster care.

By RODNEY THRASH, Times Staff Writer
Published January 31, 2008

TAMPA - Linda Lee opened the black suitcase. Inside, she found this:

An alarm clock.

A blanket.

A leather portfolio.

A toothbrush.

An umbrella.

Ziplock bags containing lotion, shampoo, mouthwash.

It might not seem like much to most people, but to Lee, who has been in the foster care system since the third grade, "small things like these, I consider really big."

Lee is part of Connected by 25, a program that equips Hillsborough County foster children with necessities to survive as young adults. A senior at Plant City High School, she's learning how to open a bank account, budget money, find a job, go to school. On Wednesday, she and 49 other soon-to-be 18-year-olds who will age out of the county's foster care system received something else.

"Toothpaste," said Lee, who turned 18 in September. "It might sound silly, but every penny does add up for us because we have to save, budget and make sure we can pay our bills on time."

Deeksha Bhat and Alexandra Grawe, both 16 and juniors at Hillsborough High, donated the suitcases and their contents, which they paid for with donations and money raised from a garage sale and a raffle. In the spring, they started a Helping Hand charity after reading about the difficulty one woman faced after life in foster care.

For Grawe, turning 18 means "college, the end of high school, the end of me being a kid," Grawe said.

But for Lee, turning 18 has a less celebratory connotation: abandonment, confusion, bills. After graduation from Plant City High in May, she won't have anyone she can call for help. All she will have is herself.

"Deeksha has her mom and dad," Lee said. "Every time she falls, they'll pick her back up and say, 'It's going to be okay.' If we fall, it's going to be a hard fall."

Countywide, there are 2,758 children in foster care. Of those, 136will age out of the system this year, said Paula Perry, director of community relations for Hillsborough Kids Inc.

"They literally come into foster care without anything," said Diane Zambito, the executive director of Connected by 25. "They only have garbage bags, if they have anything at all. Deeksha and Alexandra have personal items that empower these young people."

Lee helped Bhat and Grawe lug the suitcases into Connected's office on East Palm Avenue. Afterward, she sat down and reflected on what had just happened.

"This," she said, "is amazing."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.

Fast facts:

How to help

For more information,e-mail: our_helping_handz@yahoo.com.