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D.C. foster kids get a glimpse of life beyond the system

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It’s a Friday afternoon, and 14-year-old Cierra of Northeast has a lot on her mind.

Since she was 8, Cierra has been one of about 2,000 children in the District’s foster care system. Over the past six years, she has lived in 10 homes, only one of which she would classify as “good.”

She has nine brothers and sisters, ages 2 to 16, and she doesn’t live with any of them. She is waiting to hear whether a family she recently met is interested in adopting her; she’s confident that come August, she’ll have what the District’s Child and Family Services Agency refers to as a “forever home.”

But weighing heaviest on Cierra’s mind on this particular afternoon are the cold, hard facts of life in the construction industry.

Cierra is one of six D.C. teens who, through a program designed to give foster kids a sense of life beyond “the system” — practical jobs skills, an interest in community involvement and self-confidence — is sitting in a conference room overlooking the massive D.C. convention center hotel’s construction site, learning the ins and outs (and ups and downs) of general contracting.

The one “up,” as far as Cierra is concerned: a steady, significant paycheck.

The downs: dirty boots, broken fingernails and a demand for algebra skills she doesn’t think she has.

“I’m gonna come work for y’all,” Cierra told a project engineer from Hensel Phelps Construction, the Colorado-based company hosting the group and leading the $520 million Marriott Marquis project, which broke ground in November. “I’m gonna be the lady who comes cleans up after the dirty people in the hotel.”

Hensel Phelps’s Mike Oliveri responded in rapid-fire succession: “What are you good at? What do you like to do? What makes you happy?”

These are not questions that Cierra or her classmates — Trenton, Dante, Demetrius, Robert and Tia — are used to hearing.

“Because of their backgrounds, people have given them a lot of excuses — learning disabilities, emotional disorders, simply being foster kids. These are justified reasons to skip school or just give up,” said Toussaint Tingling-Clemmons, 27, summer program coordinator for Lifting Voices, a D.C. nonprofit group that organized the trip to Hensel Phelps.

The theme of the program is “re-imagining our neighborhoods,” said Tingling-Clemmons, who meets with the teens from 4 to 8 p.m. five days a week for six weeks. The last hour of each day, Tingling-Clemmons said, is dedicated to eating dinner and “hanging out,” two things that aren’t guaranteed for foster kids.

“Their world is so small,” he said. “We wanted them to see something outside of their norm.”

For Trenton, 14, Dante, 15, Demetrius, 16, and Robert, 15, the norm is Boys Town, a group home where they live together in Northeast.

Demetrius is interested in pursuing architecture but spends most of his time playing basketball and video games and talking to his girlfriend. He looked contemplatively at a set of Hensel Phelps blueprints and confidently announced, “I could do that,” then sketched a quick drawing of a building to prove his point.

Demetrius has three brothers and one sister but knows the whereabouts of only one of his brothers. He has been in the system for two years but is going to move in with his aunt in Maryland at the end of summer. “I’m excited,” he said, without enthusiasm.

“They deal with different emotional stuff,” Tingling-Clemmons said. “They’re dealing with self-esteem issues, abandonment issues, depression, anger, honesty issues. But as people, they’re resilient.”

It is that resilience that comes out over the course of the afternoon at Hensel Phelps’s office in Northwest. Hensel Phelps staff members teach them about the different types of jobs available in construction and how much construction workers make compared with others.

They meet a foreman, 50-year-old Belinda Hagins, who shocks them because she’s a woman and comes from a different but equally difficult background.

“I was buck wild at their age,” said Hagins, a D.C. native who lives in Ward 4. “I was in the streets, and I was buck wild. Drug use . . . alcohol use, burglary, armed robbery. I served 5 years one time, 6 years one time, 27 months, 28 days for everything but murder.”

The kids posed for photos in their personalized hard hats and neon green reflective vests. And they eagerly assembled a complex 3-D Lego puzzle, showing off each completed piece to Tingling-Clemmons.

“It’s amazingly difficult,” Tingling-Clemmons said of his responsibility to the six kids. “But once you get their respect, their love is undeniable. The loyalty they show me is incredible.”

At that moment, Cierra and Trenton, working on putting together cars for the Lego project, rushed to Tingling-Clemmons’s side to get his stamp of approval for a double-decker bus they have assembled.

“They weren’t interested in learning about [Hensel Phelps]. When I first told them, they asked me, ‘Do we have to go?’” he said.

Tingling-Clemmons, who is a middle school administrator, was surprised not only by their newfound enthusiasm but was confounded, if visibly touched, by the teens’ devotion to him. “It’s only been two weeks,” he said. “I’m waiting for the other shoe to fall.”

It didn’t, at least not that afternoon.

The event — one of several field trips that will include visits to the office of D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and the U.S. Green Building Council — is a resounding success for both sides. James Harper, the Hensel Phelps community outreach representative who helped organize the afternoon, said he would have changed only one thing — “I wish there had been more kids” — and the kids unanimously agree the field trip was fun.

Cierra, finally convinced that working in construction doesn’t have to be gross, said she would pursue the field if she didn’t already have dreams of becoming a singer or a lawyer for abused kids.

“You want kids to feel like they have someone in their corner, someone to remind them they’re important,” she said. “Mr. Toussaint — that’s my support system. I talk to him about my problems, and he listens, and he observes.”

She has known Tingling-Clemmons just two weeks. Who was “in her corner” before she met him?

“No one,” she said simply.

“Everybody has problems,” Cierra said. “Right now, I’m just working on me. Nobody’s going to be happy with me if I’m not happy with me, as Mr. Toussaint says. That’s my favorite quote.”

© The Washington Post Company