She helps teens in the last ‘vestiges of hope’
Story and photos by Chris Stewart
Sheri Aldridge has done a lot for young people in the Miami Valley. But she says it’s not yet enough.
“I haven’t begun what I’m supposed to be doing: the purpose, the vision God has placed on me. We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg,” said the founder and executive director of New Beginnings for You, a nonprofit located in downtown Dayton.
Others say Aldridge, 39, has already bettered hundreds of lives and the community in profound ways by running group homes and consulting for others that provide for kids in foster care with nowhere else to turn. The organization also sponsors youth development activities, such as summer camps and anti-bullying workshops.
“Sheri works with a population of children who are truly in the last vestiges of hope. They have been in the system, have been shuttled in and out of many homes, they have little to no future,” said Beth Mann, who nominated Aldridge as a Dayton Daily News Unsung Hero.
Mann said Aldridge’s work gives lost children care, a sense of peace, and points them to educational opportunities needed to succeed.
“They are nurtured and they suddenly matter in a world where they once barely existed,” Mann wrote in her nomination of Aldridge. “She changes the lives of the children lucky enough to walk through her doors.”
Aldridge founded New Beginnings for Youth in 2008 but since changed “Youth” to “You” in the name, because the greatest need in the community — the bulk of the iceberg — lies with helping young adults who are transitioning out of the foster care system, she said.
“If I had to pick a group of kids I’m so passionate about it would be emancipated teens that are coming out of care,” Aldridge said. Somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of those young people find themselves homeless, she said. They often go couch-to-couch at friend’s houses until they wear out their welcome — or find themselves in an even worse situation.
According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, 409 young men and women between the ages of 18-22 left Montgomery County Children Services custody between 2010-2014.
The support of these young adults during the first six months to a year after emancipation is critical, Aldridge said. It’s a juncture when the women may settle into a bad relationship or turn to prostitution while men sometimes resort to crime and potential imprisonment.
“Right now a lot of our kids need what I consider wraparound services – even if they’re out of care they still need that case management piece. They’re emancipated but they still come back to us to try to find a job or … food or shelter,” she said.
Aldridge thinks she has an answer. Her proposed Santa Clara Project aims to provide stable housing, education and job training: ingredients putting young women and men on a productive path.
Place to live, learn
Last March she secured the option to purchase a building at 1919-1945 North Main St. in Dayton with plans to make it a live-in education and work center for just-emancipated young adults.
“It breaks my heart when my young people are coming back telling me they were living in ‘bandoes,’ abandoned buildings,” Aldridge said. “One even called it a ‘bando condo.’ I didn’t even know there were so many buildings and so many kids living there. That broke my heart. So is it going to happen? Yes, it’s going to happen. It has to happen.”
The red brick building is a focal point to drivers on North Main Street making the jog at Santa Clara Avenue. It’s also a distressed building. Nature has taken hold of one upstairs room, with vines creeping through a window and pulling down plaster. Other windows are broken out, allowing scrappers access to tear out pipes and wiring. Because the building isn’t secure, Aldridge said enormous damage has been done since she put down the deposit. But that doesn’t dampen her vision.
What makes the building attractive to Aldridge are the 11 potential commercial spaces on the ground floor and enough room on the second story to accommodate up to 22 suite-like apartments for young adults.
On the ground floor, residents will get the work experience needed to round out resumes for future employment opportunities. In the works are a barbershop, beauty salon, an events space, consignment shop and restaurant. If residents need to complete their GEDs, that help will also be available. If successful here, the Santa Clara Project could provide a model for other communities, Aldridge said.
The first step involves following through on funding and purchase of the building. It’s envisioned that once the building is fit for some to occupy, those initial residents will learn trades alongside professional workers completing the remaining renovation.
All her ‘godchildren’
For someone who once told a job interviewer she didn’t particularly like kids, Aldridge has made a 180-degree turn.
At 17, the Dunbar High School graduate already had a daughter, then while attending Sinclair Community College and later Central State University she became a foster parent — ultimately fostering four children. She worked with kids in other volunteer capacities and and took an administrative position at Camp Fire serving yet more girls.
Later, on maternity leave, she left another organization serving primarily youth in Huber Heights, but the young people apparently didn’t leave her. Soon she was holding workshops for them at a local Pizza Hut and footing the bill. She said that jump started the New Beginnings. About the same time she helped develop a group home — also called New Beginnings — licensed for five girls aged 10-18 located near the De Soto Bass Courts in Dayton. Soon she was holding summer camps for other kids in the same neighborhood.
Aldridge said she maintains relationships with about 40 percent of the roughly 300 children — some now adults — who attended workshops and camps. She calls them all her godchildren.
“I can tell you now I love kids. I have accepted that God has pushed me to do this,” she said. “I see the impact that we have on each other because I learn every day from them. I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t working with kids.”
She touched thousands of other area children this season as vice president of For Love of Children, which helped bring gifts and cheer to more than 2,000 during this year’s Christmas for Kids program.
Restoring her roots
Aldridge, who grew up “all over Dayton,” now lives in Englewood with her husband, Marlon, and daughter, Nilaja, 7. She has a grown son, John Middlebrooks, Jr., 22.
One of those houses she grew up in was on Delaware Avenue — the border between the Five Oaks and Santa Clara neighborhoods — just blocks from her proposed project. She recalls the many big beautiful houses that filled both neighborhoods while she attended Fairview Middle School. The homes that haven’t been demolished are still big, but many remaining have fallen into disrepair or are boarded up.
She hopes the Santa Clara Project will help revive the area with the very people it serves using their new-found skills to rebuild the community.
“The neighborhood was something to be proud of. I want to be able to give that back to the kids in Dayton because they live in Dayton,” she said. “Let them start building something. Do you know how wonderful it’s going to be for a young adult 18-26 to say this once was a terrible neighborhood and look what I helped build. This will be a part of their life.”
Aldridge is currently working on a detailed business plan and hasn’t shared her vision “on a large scale,” but believes the community will support the idea. Those leaving foster care are already settling in Dayton, so Aldridge said it’s important for them to settle in with a purpose.
“When you get emancipated you can’t move to Oakwood or Englewood or suburban areas. You have to stay where you’re familiar at, and that’s here,” she said. “So why not give them a sense of pride and start rebuilding their community back? That’s what we hope.”
When Aldridge sets her mind to accomplish something she has the “fortitude of 1,000 angels,” Mann said. “You most definitely are a better person for knowing Sheri, and you just hope to live up to what her vision is for your place on this earth.”