Born to a family beset by drug addiction, Ivery Castilloux grew up in foster care.
At 16, a social worker steered him into supported housing with Aunt Leah’s Place. The charity provided him with a helpful landlord, budgeting and pre-employment skills.
Today, the 21-year-old is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of a new graphic and web design company and a volunteer with Aunt Leah’s, which he says has been a “blessing” to his life. “I was in a very confused place. I just didn’t know a lot about myself. I didn’t know where I was going in life. I still couldn’t understand the things that I went through in my past,” Castilloux said. “[Aunt Leah’s] made me stronger and more independent. It gave me a lot of support to push me through things, pushed me into college, pushed me through college.”
To give back to the organization that gave him help and a sense of belonging, Castilloux mentors foster kids connected to Aunt Leah’s and sells Christmas trees at one of its three lots in Burnaby, Coquitlam and Vancouver.
Gale Stewart, founder and executive director of the 24-year-old charity she named after her grandmother, says 100 per cent of the profits from the tree sales fund programs that help prevent young mothers from losing custody of their children and keeps young adults who’ve grown out of foster care from becoming homeless.
Aunt Leah’s provides shelter and parenting skills to four teenaged mothers in foster care and four new adult mothers who are risk of losing their children to social services. The organization also runs a thrift shop on East Broadway at Main Street that helps 16 older teens who’ve spent most of their lives in foster care learn the skills they’re going to need to get by when they lose their government support at age 19.
“We try to teach them the skills that they’re going to need to look after their own tenancy and look after themselves in terms of a budget and those kinds of things that all of us have to do when we become adults,” Stewart said. “But most of us have supports in place so that if we run out of money we have someone we can go to or if we need a free meal we usually have a mom or dad.”
Stewart says studies, notably by a researcher from the University of Victoria, reveal that more than 60 per cent of homeless people claim to have been former foster children. “It’s the feeding ground for homelessness and then if we don’t take care of these kids when they turn 19, the pattern is that they lose their tenancy, they couch surf and then they become homeless,” she said.
Aunt Leah’s received the 2009 award of excellence from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the representative for children and youth to the provincial government, for the society’s work with foster kids.
The organization’s Christmas tree lot runs at St. Stephen’s United Church at West 54th Avenue and Granville Street. For more information, see auntleahs.org.