Vantaja Moore, 17, who spent her childhood going from town...

Vantaja Moore, 17, who spent her childhood going from town to town with her family, moved in February into Walkabout, a Freeport residential facility for homeless teens. With a Malverne High diploma in hand, she is now a Nassau Community College freshman. (Aug. 17, 2010) Credit: Lauren Cioffi

On a rainy Friday afternoon in Freeport, Vantaja Moore lounged on a purple comforter in her bedroom. Necklaces adorned the nightstand, and evidence of the latest fashions - high-top sneakers and gladiator sandals - lined the wall. On top of the dresser, a plush toy puppy in cap and gown sat next to a display of congratulatory cards.

"I am wishing you a future as special and as wonderful as you are," one card reads. "You have so much to celebrate."

In June, Vantaja, 17, graduated from Malverne High School. She is an honors graduate, a scholarship recipient, and this week she is due to become a freshman at Nassau Community College.

Until February, she was homeless.

That's when she moved into Walkabout, a residential facility in Freeport for homeless adolescents ages 16 to 20. The 10-bedroom home is run by the Family and Children's Association. The Mineola nonprofit, which operates about 30 programs, says Walkabout is the only such facility for homeless adolescents on Long Island. It provides free room and board for up to 18 months with funding from the state, Nassau County, the United Way of Long Island and private donations. Residents are given chores and must be enrolled in school and a part-time job.

As a homeless teen, Vantaja was far from alone.

In 2008, the nonprofit Long Island Coalition for the Homeless estimated 2,509 homeless children on Long Island. Julee King, the coalition's coordinator of homeless systems, predicts the number will grow in the coming year. "We have definitely seen an increase," King says. "The number of individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness for the first time is growing, mainly because of the economy."

According to the coalition, three-quarters of Long Island's homeless move from one emergency situation to the next, "often living doubled or tripled up with relatives or friends."

That's how Vantaja describes much of her life - until February. She was living in a homeless shelter with her mother and confided in a school guidance counselor that they were getting ready to move yet again. Vantaja feared if she didn't leave her nomadic existence, she might never graduate - and pursue her dream of a college education.

"If I don't get out now, I never will," she said.

The school counselor told her about Walkabout and arranged for her to meet with Andrea Kerr, Walkabout's program director. "She had been in so many different high schools, and she needed stability," Kerr says. "She was going to do wonderful things with her life if she could just stay in one place."

Under the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, no court proceeding was necessary for Vantaja to leave her parent and move into Walkabout, which subsequently notified her mother that Vantaja was safe.

These days, Vantaja doesn't communicate with her mother. Newsday was unable to reach her.

Vantaja had a happy but short-lived childhood on Long Island. In one six-year stretch, the family moved nine times, spending time with family members and in motels and eating in soup kitchens. "It was really scary at times," Vantaja says. "We never knew what to expect."

And, she says, "we missed a lot of school because we moved around a lot. I knew I couldn't go to college if I kept living like that."

A 2007 study revealed that 40 percent of homeless adults don't have a high school diploma, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. For Vantaja, whose mother is one of the 40 percent, graduating from high school was about breaking the cycle.

At Walkabout, she had a weekly meeting with career counselor Brittany Yannucci to form a personalized education and career plan. "They all have such heartbreaking stories," Yannucci says of the young people at the residence. "But they don't let you know it. They rise above it."

This year, Vantaja was one of 68 recipients of scholarships awarded by the Family and Children's Association.

"Not only is the scholarship a financial assistance, but it makes them feel special," Yannucci says. "It makes them feel like someone cares about them, and believes in them."

Walkabout focuses on helping residents rebuild financially and emotionally. Enforcing rules - like making beds and eating dinners at the kitchen table - provides a family structure that many of the residents have never experienced.

"Consistency is something these kids do not know or trust," says Bill Best, director of Residences for Homeless Youth for the nonprofit. "And so to try to get them to open up to you is a challenge. We have kids who have been thrown to the curb, who have no idea what family is."

For Vantaja, the Walkabout experience gave her enough confidence to try to live on her own. She recently moved out of the shelter and has begun renting a room in a house.

"I want to be on my own," she said last week. "I feel like Walkabout has helped me 100 percent." She said the program taught her to set goals "and pushed me to complete them."

If the transition to independence proves too difficult, Vantaja can ask Walkabout for help.

She said she is going to try to make it work. "Living on my own is more of a responsibility," she said. "You've got to find your own food and transportation . . . but overall, I know I can do it."

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