At just 30 years old, Shadai Simmons has quite a life story.
Some of what she’s accomplished so far is displayed on a wall in her office at Ready for Life, a Pinellas County nonprofit agency that helps young people who’ve aged out of foster care.
In 2016, then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed Simmons to a statewide advisory board. A framed photograph with fellow members of the Police and Youth Engagement Roundtable hangs beside her desk. Nearby is a certificate from St. Petersburg College attesting to the fact that she’s a youth development professional.
But Simmons’ darkest days are filed away in a cabinet. Wednesday, she brought out the pages that document the times she ran away, beginning at age 12, her numerous arrests and periods in juvenile detention. She became a victim of human trafficking and addicted to crack cocaine. It was a downward spiral that continued until she was 17.
A new life dawned when she was placed in a small Christian group home that specialized in helping human trafficking victims. Later she discovered Ready for Life, which gave her a sense of belonging and spurred a vocation to help former foster kids like herself.
“All of our kids just need love and support and guidance,” she said this week. “Every kid that walks through the door, I see a piece of me in them. There is not one youth that I feel I cannot touch.”
Ready for Life got its start in 2009, a vision of former St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, who at the time was president and CEO of Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. He convinced Bud Risser of Risser Oil and Gerry Hogan, former president and chief executive of the Home Shopping Network, to form a nonprofit to help kids who had aged out of foster care and were adrift in a world they were ill prepared to navigate. They hired Kathy Mize, who came with 20 years of experience in the child welfare system and a master’s in social work, to head the new nonprofit.
They agreed, said Risser, that foster care youth would be involved in everything they did. “We would not be one of those top-heavy organizations,” he said Tuesday.
Simmons is one of three former foster kids who work with the agency that serves 15- to-25-year-olds, who are either in foster care or have aged out of the system and are on their own. Simmons’ title is youth development coordinator.
Thirteen years since its founding, the agency has helped “well over” 1,000 young people and touched the lives of hundreds more, said Mize, the CEO.
“We have 301 that we call our core group that are actively engaged with us on a regular basis and that does not include if someone comes to a holiday event or just popping in once during the year,” she said.
“And although we say 301, that doesn’t include, on any given day, that we could get a brand-new young adult that just hears about us. So that number does fluctuate quite a bit. But our numbers are constantly rising, not declining, unfortunately.”
Additionally, the agency counts 210 “little ones.” They are the children of the former foster care children. “Although that’s a large number, that’s 210 children that are not in foster care that are being raised by their parents,” Mize said. “And we are breaking the cycle that goes back, could go back, two and three and four generations. So, if we keep doing that, I hope Ready for Life won’t need to be here in 30 years.”
Simmons, a mother of two, co-founded the agency’s Mommy & Me program. WingMen, the dad’s program, is coordinated by another youth specialist, Nate Johnson, who also is the father of a son.
Meanwhile, the agency has offered a stabilizing influence as former foster children have pursued their academic dreams. A few have earned master’s degrees. Simmons, close to getting an associate’s degree, also bought a home through Habitat for Humanity. She was the first to do so.
Michelle Walag, vice president of strategic partnerships, said the first stop for new arrivals is the Ready for Life kitchen. It’s where they can get a snack, maybe a cup of hot cocoa, or even a smoothie. But what might seem like an everyday task is not always simple for some former foster kids, who might not have been allowed to prepare a meal where they lived, Walag explained.
“We have to help fill in some of these learning gaps, which is what we’re up to at Ready for Life. We stabilize the crisis situation they’re in when they arrive on our doorstep. We lift the ground up underneath these young people, help remove any barrier, and then we walk with them to help them fill in the life skills and learning gaps that are very common to this vulnerable population,” Walag said.
“The heart of any home is the kitchen. That’s the same at Ready for Life. They walk in and the first stop is at the kitchen. They can nourish not only their bodies, but their hearts and their souls. We slow them down and they come back to life a little bit.”
Those in foster care, says the Children’s Defense Fund, are “among the most vulnerable children in America.”
Nationally, the organization says in its “State of America’s Children 2021” report, Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children “are represented in foster care at a rate 1.66 and 2.84 times their portion of the overall population, respectively.”
Locally, said Risser, “There’s a disproportionate number of African-American kids in our group.”
The organization offers a number of programs designed to help youth aging out of foster care become independent. It works in partnership with several organizations and an army of volunteers.
“We are 95 percent privately funded and that’s due to the generosity of so many local family foundations, corporations, civic and faith-based groups and individuals,” Mize said.
The Tampa Bay Rays, for instance, sponsor what’s called the Clean Sweep Day Stop with laundry facilities and showers for homeless youth. Volunteers assemble hygiene kits. Beth’s Corner, sponsored by the Beth Dillinger Foundation, supplies new work clothing for work. A volunteer teaches a Zoom cooking class. A full-time mental health counselor is available through a partnership with Pinellas County and the Pinellas County Public Defender’s Office. Another partnership, this time with BayCare, means a health navigator is available to help former foster kids understand how to use the health care system.
A Ready for Jobs program includes job coaching. “We have our own proprietary class that is taught by a couple of our wonderful volunteers, Heather and Gary Lafferty, out of Tampa,” Walag said. “It really sets kids up to compete in the job market, but it also gives them that sense of knowing that they can do it.”
There’s also a financial literacy class that’s offered through a partnership with Suncoast Voices for Children, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and United Way Suncoast. Walag said graduates can get up to $3,000 in matched savings.
Ready for Life, which is in Largo, began in St. Petersburg. “When we started this, the center of gravity for the population was Fifth Avenue S,” Risser said. That’s now shifted to Largo, he said. “Our kids can’t afford to live in St. Petersburg.”
About 82 percent are homeless, Mize said. “Some are in shelters. Some don’t want to go to shelters. “We have some young adults that have an AA and they have lived in their cars the whole time and it’s amazing to me that they just keep going. They are resilient, that’s for sure.”
The organization keeps air mattresses on hand for those who sleep outdoors. Some even live in storage units or “go couch-to-couch-to-couch,” Mize added.
“That’s why we are working so hard right now on housing and developing some kind of transitional type campus to give them a chance. Our dream is we’re looking at property. We are diligently exploring transitional housing opportunities, more like dorm-style housing,” she said.
“We’re working with a core group of people, some funders, some investors, just to see what might be possible. That’s where we are right now. But our goal is to partner to have a facility that possibly could hold 30. That seems like a good starting point to kind of run this as a pilot and see how that works. “
In keeping with its commitment to listen to the youth they serve, Ready for Life has a mentoring program. The former foster kids asked for “one person that cares that they are alive,” Mize said.
Walag, who started the program, said adult volunteers are matched with youth for about an hour a week. “It’s so simple and so much fun to be a part of these young people’s lives while they discover how great they are themselves,” she said.
“We have many who started out homeless and hungry who are now graduating from college. Some of them are getting master’s degrees. They’re buying houses. And successfully parenting their own children. It’s just remarkable.”
Like Simmons. The child of migrant workers – her father was from Mexico and died before she was born and her mother is African-American – did not go to school past 5th grade. She’s now just a class short of getting her associate in science degree and is making plans to go on to earn a bachelor’s in human services.
“My children are going to be better than me,” she said. “They’re going to be even 10 times better than me.”
Her favorite quote, she said, is “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
“We have to progress,” she said. “Ready for Life taught me that my past is not my future and it gave me all the tools to be a better parent. They planted the seed and they watered it and I bloomed into this beautiful flower as I see it.”