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.