Program Report – Alex Protzman: LIFE Skills Foundation

Living Independently & Finding Empowerment

The acronym for LIFE Skills Foundation, spelled out above, is a completely appropriate name for this Durham non-profit. Originally known as the Carolina Outreach Foundation, the organization transitioned to LIFE Skills in 2013, Rotarian Ari Medoff explained in his introduction, to better address its mission to providing housing, life, and job skills for the community’s young adults in need.

Founding Director Alex Protzman earned his MSW (Master of Social Work) from NYU and focuses on LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Work), supporting individuals specifically with mental and emotional health needs. LIFE Skills provides housing and wraparound support services to youth ages 15 – 24, Protzman explains, “because often they have nowhere else to go. They’ve aged out of foster care, they’re justice-involved, or their families can no longer support them, and they are not well served by either child or adult social services.”

Wraparound services involve seven fundamental areas: housing, employment, education, communication, financial literacy, development of a support network, and personal health (both physical and mental.) “These transitional youth are costly to society,” Protzman says. “Of young adults aging out of foster care, one in five will become homeless and one in four will become incarcerated. But until they can learn how to apply for credit, fill out an apartment lease, or even properly complete an application for college or a job, their future options are very limited.”

Currently, LIFE Skills owns eight residential units where they can house their youth. On-site staff support includes weekly support groups, training in basic home maintenance, and conflict resolution for 30 hours per week. “These young adults have little or no experience in how to live independently,” Protzman emphasizes. “So, we help them master simple skills that many of us take for granted such as grocery shopping or basic respect for a roommate. We work on incremental changes – ‘baby steps’ – but just as long as they keep moving forward.”

The problem is growing. Since 2013, the number of youth in foster care in Durham has increased by 47 percent. Each night, there are more than 80 young adults who are homeless, adding up to more than 700 per year. North Carolina has the second fastest growth rate of teenage homelessness in the nation.

LIFE Skills’ approach is working. Over 80 percent of its participants are either involved in an education program or are employed; most youth find work within three months of enrollment. Participants are required to be employed and/or in school a minimum of 30 hours per week. One-third of their income is “paid” to LIFE Skills in the form of rent; the organization actually banks the money for each individual and pays it back when they are ready to move on from the program. “That way they have a little nest egg that they have to manage responsibly to help them get started on their own two feet,” Protzman notes.

The organization has a number of community partners, including Durham Public Schools and the Department of Social Services. Protzman and his team dream of expanding the program and its partnerships to increase its collective impact by purchasing additional residential units; improving access to regular medical, dental, and mental health services; providing year-round, ‘round the clock access to support services for residents; and involving its participants in community service projects.

And that’s just for starters. According to the website (www.lifeskillsfound.org), “each transition youth we work with has the fundamental right to a life of happiness, full of possibility, and free from oppression.” That’s a goal that I daresay my Rotary colleagues would heartily agree with.

Submitted by: Carver C. Weaver

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