Survive and thrive

Photo by Sue Suchyta. Ania Reese, 18, a Shepherd Hall resident, uses the kitchen in the common living space. Vista Maria's Transitional Living Program helps women age 16 to 24, who are homeless or aging out of the foster care system, set educational, employment and life goals to successfully prepare for independent living.

Photo by Sue Suchyta. Ania Reese, 18, a Shepherd Hall resident, uses the kitchen in the common living space. Vista Maria’s Transitional Living Program helps women age 16 to 24, who are homeless or aging out of the foster care system, set educational, employment and life goals to successfully prepare for independent living.

Sunday Times Newspapers

HEIGHTS – Vista Maria’s Shepherd Hall Transitional Living Program is helping young women aging out of the foster system and facing homelessness set educational and career goals while learning crucial life skills.

Up to one-third of the youth aging out of the Wayne County foster care system lack the support, care, and experience needed to transition to independent living, staff contend.

“Helping young women to successfully transition through these early adult choices and opportunities not only helps the individuals to be self-sustaining,” Angela Aufdemberge, Vista Maria president and CEO, said, “but also supplies businesses with bright young talent and future community leaders.”

SHTLP provides up to 20 young women age 16 to 24 with individual, peer, and group support; mentoring; educational and career planning; and life skill coaching in areas like budgeting, cooking, relationship building, and substance abuse prevention.

Move-in ready dorm style rooms, with common living spaces, are available for $250 per month (including utilities), and are in a secure, gated, and guarded campus.

“(SHTLP) provides the relationships, systems, support, skills and confidence so that our clients can successfully manage one of the most difficult transitions that all young adults face,” Aufdemberge said. “Our program provides them with the support structures to succeed and fulfill their dreams.”

Karen Hall, Vista Maria director of quality improvement, said SHTLP began in December 2012 when they realized that young women who left their residential program did not always have an adequate support system in their communities, and they ended up coming back to Vista Maria or became homeless.

“What we wanted to do was create a continuum of care for our young women that come through our program,” Hall said. “They help, heal, work on whatever their trauma issues are, whatever their diagnosis – whether it is mental health issues – so that once they graduated from our residential program and went back into the community, if it did not work out, then they have a safe place to come, have a support system, and continue their education.”

When SHTLP first opened, most of the young women had ties to Vista Maria, but the staff quickly realized that Michigan has a large homeless youth population, and they wanted to help young women in that population as well.

“A lot of our youth who were homeless had some huge ambitions, but they did not have the resources or support, and often found themselves in an unsafe predicament,” Hall said.

“What we are doing here now at Shepherd Hall is teaching them a new way of living,” Hall said. “We are giving them those independent living skills, which a lot of them lacked, the stuff we learned growing up from our parents or supportive adult in our lives.”

Hall said they let the young women who were previously in survival mode know that SHTLP will serve as their support system.

“You don’t have to be out on the street, selling drugs or trafficking yourself in order for you to support yourself, in order for you to look forward to your next meal,” Hall said. “All of them are not traffic victims, but we know that there has been some trauma in their lives at some point, because they would not have been in those circumstances had they had that support.”

Hall said 12 young women have successfully transitioned from the program and are living on their own, either going to school, or working and supporting themselves, and they often come back and mentor current residents.

She said two former residents, sisters, are now living together and attending Kalamazoo College.

“They have overcome the challenges of being in the foster care system,” Hall said. “Those two sisters beat all odds. They have their own apartment, jobs, and they are doing well in school. That is one of many of our success stories.”

She said another young woman, a SHTLP resident, is about to graduate from Wayne State University with a degree in social work, and is working full-time with a local hospital while also working at an internship.

“Often we find her with the other young women, teaching them to be positive, counseling them,” Hall said. “We tell them, ‘You can make it, but you have to be the one in charge of your destiny.’”

Hall said the most rewarding part of her job is seeing a young woman realize that she can achieve a goal, and to see her take the initiative and pursue it.

“They may make many mistakes along the way, and that’s OK,” Hall said. “They learn from their mistakes and they move on, and learn how to be successful later on in life.”

Pura Strong, 19, a Shepherd Hall resident, said the program and staff are helping her further her education.

“There is a lot of support around this campus,” Strong said. “You feel welcome, and it is a safe environment. Their overall goal is to help a person.”

She said there are group sessions to help residents with different issues, and staff available for individual advice.

She is currently studying criminal justice, and would like to eventually pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work.

She said the world needs more places like Shepherd Hall.

“There are people out there on the street that I see every day that got it worse than I do, so for me to be here, I am actually really lucky,” Strong said.

Funding for the SHTLP depends on private gifts from individual donors, faith-based organizations and professional groups.

“Shepherd Hall really relies on individual donors, and so we need more of the same,” said Kelly Small, interim director of marketing and fund development. “Whether that’s a $5 gift or a $5,000 gift, it all goes toward helping young ladies make the transition into adulthood.”

Aufdemberge said even though SHTLP is one of their most value-added programs, it has the least financial public support.

“The SHTLP support and guidance is one of the most valuable programs we provide because it has the greatest impact on ending poverty,” Aufdemberge said. “Readers can help make a difference by engaging their church, professional organization or making a personal gift. Help change a life and enable a young person to fulfill their dreams.”

To learn more about Shepherd Hall dorm apartments on the Vista Maria campus, 20651 W. Warren in Dearborn Heights, contact Heather Johnson at 313-271-3050, Ext. 318; via email at; or go to