Program aids teens in foster care

Amanda, left and Jasmine, participate with Richard Freilich,

Amanda, left and Jasmine, participate with Richard Freilich, director of the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts Program, in a new program that prepares foster teens to transition out of the foster system via workshops at the Saddle Rock Ranch. (Dec. 8, 2012) (Credit: Ed Betz)

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Teenagers sat at tables in a Middle Island classroom equipped with a kitchen, watching as a professional chef demonstrated how to chop a cucumber.

"See your fingers? We don't want to lose them," said Richard Freilich, Suffolk County Community College's culinary program director, tucking his fingertips away from the blade. "Use your fingers to control the vegetable."

Food safety and healthy cooking were among several skills 30 teens in New York's foster care system learned Saturday at the launch of a special respite program.

Held at the 15-acre Saddle Rock Ranch, the program aims to prepare teens transitioning out of foster care, with workshops on topics ranging from managing money and enrolling in college to grooming horses.

"The goal is that it will make a difference in some of their lives. They'll be able to start feeling confident," said Lauri Sherman Graff, director of Heart Gallery NYC, which created the program with Family Residences and Essential Enterprises Inc., the ranch operator.

About 100 teens will take part in the monthly program, with some courses taught by Suffolk County Community College instructors, through a $25,000 grant by HSBC, the global banking and financial services firm.

Foster children face "tremendous challenges" in entering the real world, Sherman Graff said.

"A significant percentage of children who age out of foster care end up incarcerated or homeless; the girls end up pregnant," she said. "So we're hoping to just interject before that happens and give them some hope."

Hope is central to both nonprofits. Heart Gallery NYC has helped find permanent homes for many foster children, featuring their photographs in public exhibits since 2007, Sherman Graff said. Family Residences offers a variety of programs, especially centered around equestrian therapy, for Long Island residents with special needs, said Christopher Long, the group's chief of operations.

"One of the important components . . . is how the handlers develop relationships with the horse," he said.

Jasmine, in foster care for 14 of her 16 years, called it "a little bit" overwhelming to learn how to budget the money she makes in a work-study program at a nursing home. "It's going to get harder because when I get more jobs, I gotta learn how to spend my money and how to save it," she said.

For Amanda, 14, who has been in foster care since she was 6, the program takes her "one step closer" to becoming a young adult.

Amanda said she hopes to become a therapist, adding, "Because I've been through so much during my past . . . it would be easier to understand a kid, because I've been through it."

To learn more, contact Heart Gallery NYC at 212-965-8699 or Family Residences at 516-870-1648.

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