In 1906, a Los Angeles juvenile delinquent judge came to a startling realization. In order to mold honest and respected young citizens, he had to do more than simply punish troubled children. Turning to a friend who owned a chicken ranch, the judge asked the farmer if 5 boys could live and work on the farm for free. The program successfully taught the children to take responsibility for their past misdeeds and molded them into commendable citizens, prompting the ranch owner to contact the Optimist Club for volunteers and funding. After adopting the Optimist model, the rancher retired but left his land to the organization only if they continued to guide children through the challenging moments they faced. Thanks to the judge and his friend who welcomed those 5 boys onto his ranch nearly 115 years ago, the Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services is now one of the oldest and largest nonprofit child welfare agencies in Los Angeles, providing individualized services, education, and general support to nearly 600 young boys and girls and their families.
Over the years, the organization has become greatly involved within the foster care sector by training and certifying prospective foster care parents. While successful in their work, the main goal is for their participants to become independent, return to work or school, and not face any legal troubles.
“Even though we’re in the foster care business, if we can keep a kid out of the foster care system and healthy and safe, then it’s much better for the child and the family,” says Chief Executive Officer of the Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services Silvio Orlando, who has been involved with the organization for over 20 years and holds over 50 years of social work experience.
Through intervention programs, the organization addresses behavioral and psychological issues, ideally when they begin to manifest. One of the programs, Project Fatherhood, educates teenage fathers on the importance in being a stable and loving presence for their children. Orlando explains that early intervention with the entire family can have positive and lasting effects on all those involved.
“We work, in all our programs, with families because we don’t believe we can treat the child in isolation from the family.”
In addition to the programs offered, youth participants attend the organization’s charter school and benefit from a personalized and individual education. For the students living on the organization’s multiple campuses, direct-care workers and volunteers teach the children basic life skills, becoming “pseudo-parents for these kids,” states Orlando.
“They are very aware the volunteers come in and [work] out of the goodness of their hearts.”
While the organization benefits from state and county contracts and raises about $1 million annually through private sources, grant donors, and corporations, California regulations for residential housing and care have changed drastically. The majority of youth that need residential housing have pressing mental health needs, but Orlando explains that within a broken system, many are unable to effectively respond to treatment, placing even more youth in danger.
“Residential care is really expensive, and in my opinion, that’s what is driving a lot of the changes.”
“I really think we have a crisis in residential care in the state of California.”
Within the upcoming years, Orlando and his team are planning to expand Optimist’s charter school and enroll more students from the greater Los Angeles community. Additionally, the organization is setting its sights on reducing residential care and instead providing more outpatient mental health services and maintaining greater contact with patients. Regardless, at the root of all their work, Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services carries on the legacy it established over one century ago: strengthen communities by building independent youth.
“We follow them up in the community. We don’t forget them once they leave,” says Orlando.
“We hope they will no longer be in need in any additional care.”