Aunt Leah's Christmas trees help grow hope

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 Leahs Place. The charity provided him with a helpful landlord, budgeting and pre-employment skills.

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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 Leahs, which he says has been a blessing to his life. I was in a very confused place. I just didnt know a lot about myself. I didnt know where I was going in life. I still couldnt understand the things that I went through in my past, Castilloux said. [Aunt Leahs] 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 Leahs 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 whove grown out of foster care from becoming homeless.

Aunt Leahs 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 whove spent most of their lives in foster care learn the skills theyre going to need to get by when they lose their government support at age 19.

We try to teach them the skills that theyre 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. Its the feeding ground for homelessness and then if we dont 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 Leahs received the 2009 award of excellence from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the representative for children and youth to the provincial government, for the societys work with foster kids.

The organizations Christmas tree lot runs at St. Stephens United Church at West 54th Avenue and Granville Street. For more information, see auntleahs.org.

crossi@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi

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