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Stepping Stones, Inc

Youth who age out of the foster care system often experience homelessness, poverty, addiction, and incarceration resulting from a lack of support during their transition to independent living. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, 20% of children in foster care will instantly become homeless at age 18, and one of every two will develop substance use disorder. Less than 3% will earn a college degree, and 60% of males will be convicted of a crime.

The team at Stepping Stones, Inc., in Lavalette, West Virginia, has been working for nearly 50 years to reduce these numbers by helping young men living on their campus successfully transition from the foster care system to lead productive, independent lives. The organization provides a safe, nurturing environment where residents have access to comprehensive services and a team of dedicated staff to support their physical and mental health.

“Nationally, youth who age out of foster care at 18 have often been in care for three years or more,” said Susan Fry, Executive Director of Stepping Stones. “Many do not have the support or skills that are learned in family systems, such as how to cook, drive, budget, or apply for a job or educational opportunity. They may not know how to access housing or navigate complex systems to take care of their basic needs, and they often experience education deficits due to being moved from one placement to another.

“These issues are challenging for most 18-year-olds, let alone youth that lack parents, mentors and other sufficient support systems,” she continued. “All of these issues set up insurmountable barriers that just continue to perpetuate negative cycles.”

Fry said these young adults often do not realize their potential or contribute to the community, which can overwhelm resources. That’s why it is important to invest in youth before they leave foster care by giving them the tools needed to become productive members of the community.

Youth Transition Project: Tiny Home Village

To help its youth address barriers and reach their full potential, Stepping Stones launched the Youth Transition Project, which includes a Tiny Home Village where young men can learn to live independently while retaining access to valuable resources and support. The on-campus village provides more than just a safe, affordable place to live. Residents receive mental and behavioral health treatment, life skills training, employment assistance, crisis support, education, transportation, and opportunities for community involvement.

“Living in the tiny homes has taught me how to manage my time and keep my home clean,” said Scott, a Stepping Stones resident. “It also taught me how to be a good neighbor, and I have learned things like how to fix my own food too. The most important thing I am responsible for is paying my rent and writing checks. I’m very grateful to be in this program. It has taught me so much in such a short time.”

The Tiny Home Village consists of eight houses, six of which were constructed with grant funding from a 2020 Core Priorities Initiative award from the Pallottine Foundation of Huntington. The $289,947 grant provided for labor costs, materials, aeration/septic systems, waterlines, and electrical connections.

“This grant turned dreams into reality and hopelessness into hope for the transitioning youth we built the tiny home village for,” Fry said. “Without the grant funding and the technical assistance and support from the Foundation, this dream would have struggled to become a reality.”

Janell Ray, Chief Executive Officer of the Pallottine Foundation of Huntington, said, “Our team was very excited to partner with Stepping Stones on the Tiny Home Village project. To our knowledge, this is the only program of its kind, and we hope the innovative idea will inspire other communities to provide the same type of supports for youth preparing to leave the foster care system.”

Each tiny home is approximately 350 square feet and includes a full kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room. Homes are decorated according to each resident’s preference and are fully furnished with support from partnering organizations and foundations. All tiny homes are compliant with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources regulations.

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Although the village’s last tiny home was completed in the fall of 2022, the project faced many challenges along the way, some of which halted progress for an extended time.

Construction on the first two tiny homes began in October 2020, but the project stalled in February 2021 when a devastating ice storm hit the region. Roads were impassible for days, power was lost for weeks, and construction stopped for months. In addition, the residential facility on Stepping Stones’ campus was repeatedly locked down due to COVID-19 regulations.

Then, in the summer of 2021, the project’s contractor suddenly passed away, resulting in the search for a new contractor and another construction delay. Meanwhile, inflation steadily increased, and the nation faced crippling supply chain issues, causing labor and material costs to rise. Initial estimates for completion of the remaining tiny homes nearly doubled.

That’s when the Stepping Stones and Pallottine Foundation teams started searching for ways to keep costs down and secure alternative building solutions while maintaining the integrity of the project. In the spring of 2022, the Tiny Home Village project was back on track with a new plan to have contractors build the houses off site and then transport and install them on site.

“Building these tiny homes during a worldwide pandemic was not easy, and many days seemed insurmountable,” Fry said. “However, the Foundation team never wavered in their belief in us and were always encouraging and understanding. When we could not see a way to overcome a barrier, they were always at the ready to brainstorm with us and connect us to community partners who could help. The Tiny Home Village has been and continues to be a community partnership, and the grant funding and Foundation team was the integral spark that launched the successful completion of this project.”

Pallottine Foundation team members visited the Stepping Stones campus in November 2022 to tour the Tiny Home Village. One home was already occupied, and residents were expected to move into other homes by the end of November.

“We were overcome with joy as we stepped inside each home,” said Jana Stoner, health program officer. “This project will have a significant and hopefully life-changing impact on the lives of these young men.”

The grand opening of the Tiny Home Village is scheduled for March 2023. For more information about Stepping Stones, Inc., visit www.steppingstonesinc.org.