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A big thank you to Christina Dronen, co-founder of Finally Family Homes, for joining us in the SPOTLIGHT today where we share stories of individuals who bring light and joy to others through their work in non-profits and charities!
Finally Family Homes is a non-profit organization that aims to create community, provide resources and create permanency for former foster youth in the Greater Los Angeles area. They were inspired to start their non-profit through initiatives at their home church, Pacific Crossroads Church, in Los Angeles where they were educated about the great needs for supporting youth in the local foster care system. Feeling the move to action, the Dronen family created Finally Family Homes to give justice, hope and a future to aged-out foster kids.
Christina, have you and your husband Eric been foster parents in the past?
No. Honestly, it’s not something that interested us at all. It sounded intimidating and difficult and we just had no real understanding of what it is like for these kids nor how desperately the system needs help.
Many folks would feel satisfied giving a check to a non-profit or even going the next step and fostering but you guys founded a non profit! How did you come to this huge and yet exciting decision?
Well, had we known how much work the non-profit business side of things is, we might not have! Our church got us interested in helping foster youth and the homeless. Helping aging-out foster youth is where the two worlds meet. Through a variety of experiences – walking with a neighbor struggling with trauma & homelessness, watching a friend use her back house for refugees and others in need, visiting an aged-out orphan ministry in Kyrgyzstan – to name a few, we came up with our own unique take on how to best help aging out foster youth. We felt like most of what we saw in other organizations was a little too impersonal, temporary, & institutional. Not that they aren’t helpful, but we want to help in a new way with deeper, long-term, and more holistic and personal support for youth aging-out. We are also unique in that we are sending the youth off with a safety-net, which is a tiny home. And we are unique in that they will always be welcome back for any holiday, dinner, etc.
What were your kids’ reactions to learning you want to start Finally Family Homes? Do your older children help out in any way?
They’ve had different reactions over time. At first kind of a “that’s nice” and going about their business, then they got mad at me for being so busy with it. They’re glad, but I think they don’t truly grasp all that we are doing. My son did, however, say to me out of the blue, “Can you stop talking about foster kids? It makes me too sad.” I told him, “The good news is, we are going to help.”
What kind of care do your above 18 year olds receive?
There are two main programs our non-profit is launching. The first is the holistic program including housing. This includes up to 3 years in a transitional house, with supports to continue higher education or trade school, and just general guidance and mentoring from us personally on how to do life. So that means learning how to cook, drive, pay taxes, how to navigate the health care system, the grocery store, how to apply for college, financial aid, manage your credit, and so on. Anything outside of our qualifications, we will facilitate getting them to the help they need.
The other program, which we hope to start this fall, we’re calling “Life Launch.” It will be a weekly social-educational club for youth 16-24 that will help equip youth with connections to the resources and information they need to succeed. The classes will cover things like managing your security online, opening a bank account, managing finances, personal safety & self-defense basics, and more. We plan to provide dinner for the youth not only to help motivate them to come, but also because so many aged-out youth struggle with food insecurity. As well, eating together helps facilitate relationship building. While our main target is to serve at-risk youth, any youth within the age range are welcome to come to our group!
On your website you speak of a goal to own an acre of land, a small house for up to 6 youth (18-21), a large garage for building tiny homes, and a community room. Who will be assisting the youth in building these tiny homes that they will take with them?
We will be helping the youth, but we will also be reaching out to the professionals for help. We’ve already been in talks with several tiny home builders.
Do you have a sponsor in place to help provide the necessary parts to build these tiny homes?
We do not yet have a sponsor in place, but we are hoping our growing social media presence will help pay off in future donations.
Do you personally have a tiny home? Or is this all new for you guys too?
We’ve been in very small homes! Because we live in LA, space is cramped and expensive (which is part of the reason we have the housing crisis going on here). Our family of 4 lived in a 2 bed, 1 bath 850 sq ft duplex until we had our 3rd kid – which isn’t truly tiny, but small. As time went by and we got more stuff we were faced with moving, living like pack rats, or learning how to fit the space we had. I discovered minimalism and tiny houses. I’ve experienced the joy of having less. That said, since we’ve moved I’ve also discovered the joy of having 2 bathrooms for 4 people.
The wait list for affordable housing can be 10 years long for those who qualify. I heard of a young man who went from a very sheltered group home to finally getting put in affordable housing. It was in Compton, though and he was attacked many times by gangs. Giving youth a tiny house creates the affordable housing for them. They can park in safer areas and have more control over their living situation. My favorite part of this plan, is that it passes the wealth on to them, rather than leaving them to barely get by while paying rent to someone else.
How did you connect with your sister city program, The Oak House, in Asia? Do you have hopes in the future to send your own foster youth on cultural and building trips to The Oak House?
Our church has a relationship with a local church in Kyrgyzstan. In the summers, members from our church come to help them run their summer camps for kids. I went a few years ago. While there, I found out that another one of amazing things they were also doing was caring for orphan girls who aged out of the system there at 16. I worked alongside some of these girls who were at the church volunteering to help with the summer camps alongside us. I was so impressed with how poised, helpful, and hopeful they were – in stark contrast to some foster teen events I’ve helped with here. I believe it was being surrounded by a loving community that made a huge difference. These girls were connected, empowered, and surrounded by community. I saw in real-life almost exactly what I had been contemplating doing here. It was after this experience I felt that final push to get Finally Family Homes started.
The pastor’s daughter & son-in-law run the program and are all-around awesome people too – fun, sassy, we totally connected. We’ve met up whenever they have been here visiting and stay in touch over social media. I want to continue supporting them however I can too and would love to send our youth there to help and connect as well when the time is right.
Can you tell us a bit about your team and how they came on board?
My husband Eric is on board. He’s been pretty into it from the get-go. He likes helping people and having the opportunity to share family life with others. He feels like it’s also a proper expression of his faith to care for what are essentially our nation’s orphans.
Eugenie, our CFO, was my roommate in Kyrgyzstan. She got to know the youth and leaders at the Oak House too. She’s also on our board of directors and has been an enthusiastic supporter from the get-go.
Our board of directors are all from Pacific Crossroads. Cheryl Baker is a mentor of young moms and staff member supporting small groups. Marie Kirchner is the director of Global Missions and works and serves at another non-profit as well. Michelle Lin, we never knew before. She just heard about what we are doing. She’s a CASA, and joined to support our mission.
We also had some friends from church – one worked 10 years for non-profits and the other is an entrepreneur. They helped us figure out fund-raising and writing business plans. We are an all volunteer organization, so it’s been a lot of people hearing about what we are doing and offering their unique talents and skills to help us – grant-writers, filmmakers, social media experts, etc.
How can churches and individuals support your mission to STAND IN THE GAP – offering hope and empowerment to aged-out foster youth?
I think Pacific Crossroads has a powerful testimony to the value of informing and mobilizing their congregation to get involved in serving those in need in their own communities, as well as reminding them of God’s own heart for orphans. We wouldn’t be surrounded by so many helping and energized hands if it wasn’t for this move by our church.
Specifically, Finally Family Homes could use prayer, continued help getting the word out about us (since we are new), and as we are moving forward we could definitely use more volunteers and donations. Our current needs lists is on our website at https://www.finallyfamilyhomes.org/get-involved.html.
What advise do you have for anyone who feels called to make a difference by starting their own non-profit or charity?
I’d say first search hard to make sure there isn’t another charity doing what you want to do or that might want to help you with whatever project you have in mind. Starting a profit means all the entrepreneurial work of running a business, but with extra work and oversight for being a non-profit. Starting my own non-profit has meant writing business plans, strategic plans, marketing agreements, building budgets, running fund-raisers, working on graphics for social media, government paper work and special tax form filings, on-line marketing – none of which was in my work history nor any of which is the actual work that inspired us to start this organization.
So, to anyone who feels called to start a non-profit, do your homework, take classes, network, learn from other non-profits what they are doing and how. I’ve received so much tremendous guidance and advice from other non-profits who have so kindly taken time to give me tours of their facilities, explained the programs, and shared from places of experience. There are podcasts and Facebook groups for non-profit leaders and founders that I’ve found tremendously helpful. Get as much community support as you can – not just in spirit, but in enlisting others to share in the work of running the business. It’s a tremendous amount of work with all the pitfalls of starting a new business.
And get help from your family social circle. Even in the peripherals it helped to have others come around me. My husband took on caring for the kids and making dinners after work for months while I ran our social media and marketing campaign in the months leading up to and during our last fundraiser. Friends helped watch the baby. My big kids stayed home from their usual activities so I could work.
I hope I don’t sound too negative. I don’t regret starting Finally Family Homes. I do think it was the right move. I just didn’t truly know all that was needed to get it going before we started. If I had, I might have approached it differently. There were times I was idle because I didn’t know the next step, then suddenly deadlines were upon me and I was working long days and late nights. Once I caught on to it being an entrepreneurial endeavor however, that helped guide my path. In summary, I’d recommend counting the cost before you start.
Thanks again to Christina Dronen and Finally Family Homes for taking the time to talk with us! Here are some useful links if you would like to connect with them:
Tax Deductible donations can be made to their “Hope and a Future” Campaign to fund housing:
Finally Family Homes
PO Box 55186
Valencia, CA 91385-0186