Caroline MacGregorPublished January 8, 2024 - 12:16 pm
Foster kids often don’t have anywhere to go when they turn 18. New Vision Village in Barbour County aims to fill that void through housing and work opportunities for disconnected young adults and at-risk youth.
A $750,000 grant in 2023 Affordable Housing Program funding will support construction of the village’s first five tiny houses for 12 young men aging out of the foster care system.
CEO and President of New Vision Ruston Seaman said the money will fund basic infrastructure like plumbing and electricity as work begins to develop the village.
“Our blueprint plan calls for a village of 24 units,” Seaman said. “It’s about a $2.5 million development and this grant will pay for the first 5 units to be built and installed and then one fifth of the infrastructure, road, the septic system, those elements, so it’s a great gift.”
The goal is to turn the village into a thriving community, supporting transitioning youth entering the world of work and responsibility. The young men who live there will be gainfully employed at an onsite tiny house factory that will continue to produce tiny homes for this and future villages.
When completed, 12 of the village’s 24 500-square-feet, fully furnished units will accommodate adults who will serve as mentors to the youth. The goal is to establish healthy multi-generational relationships as key ingredients for the village to thrive, according to Seaman. As part of a supportive community these adults will care for and help the young men at a critical stage of their development learn to become contributing members of society.
Seaman said they will include retired school teachers, veterans, widows or single people with strong life experience.
“Everyone would live in the village, the 12 young people in job training learning life skills would then have neighbors that become friends,” Seaman said. “They’d have family, that’s the number one thing about kids aging out of foster care. Most of them have their life almost totally disrupted. Some of them don’t have anyone in their life right now called family.”
The proposed tiny house village is a sustainable effort which Seaman believes offers a high probability of positive outcomes for many people. The village will have two full-time employees, including a property manager and a relational coordinator.
The journey to New Vision Village began back in 1979 when Seaman was an 18-year-old hitchhiker seeking direction and purpose. He became a pastor and credits God with guiding him on an adventure of a lifetime. “It takes a village” becomes a real life metaphor for New Visions’ commitment to providing a safe, healthy environment where youth can develop and flourish.
Twenty-three-year-old Anthony Hinkle has been in the foster care system twice. Both of his parents were drug users and are now deceased. His memories are laced with trauma.
“The first time it wasn’t my choice, I was a kid and don’t remember too much about it,” Hinkle said. “The second time, my mom met two people in the hospital, and she let them move in. They ended up stealing my dad’s drugs, his medicine. It got to the point where my dad threatened to take a bowie knife and gut me like a fish. My mother, in sheer panic, did not know what to do and gave up her parental rights to protect me and my brother.”
Early on, Hinkle learned what it’s like to have no one to turn to.
“When you’re alone you don’t have much of a support system and you crave other people,” Hinkle said. “You know, we’re made to be social, to be getting out of our comfort zone and talking to others, whether we want to or not. We’re supposed to be in this together; society has changed everything to the point where we’re against each other and it’s ‘me, me, me’ – ‘not we, we, we.’”
Hinkle briefly attended college with plans to become a caseworker. That didn’t work out, but he now has an opportunity to use his life trauma as a springboard to help other young people. He said he hopes to develop his leadership abilities to help guide the village’s new residents with a clear foundation of what to expect as they learn new life skills alongside their new family.
“In order to give these kids a support system, they need someone that knows what it’s like to go without,” Hinkle said. “They need someone who knows at the end of the day you may feel alone but you’re not actually alone because you’ve got people that are encouraging you to go to work, to be time efficient, preparing you for the real world.”
New Vision’s inspiration for the tiny homes is based on a national model called Eden Village, which builds villages for chronically homeless people. The organization helped New Vision build a business plan while Seaman’s son Ruston Ray, a recent WVU Landscape Architecture graduate, helped with the design of the village while Starlight Construction helped with the engineering side of the design plans.
“The first five homes have to be done within a year but we believe by Earth Day, we’ll have our first big celebration and by that time we hope to have the first unit on the ground and ready for being reviewed,” Seaman said.
Seaman said design plans call for the building of a manufacturing hub or factory and a heated warehouse that will house early production of the tiny homes. He said New Visions job training program will be incorporated into the process.
“A lot of it is focused on young people transitioning or aging out of foster care, or who are in life transition and our factory will utilize their skills,” Seaman said. “We’ll have to hire a few more people for our staff to be able to build: we’ll need an electrician, we’ll need some people with skills to lead the jobs.”
By the time it’s up and running, New Vision Village hopes to produce 70 tiny house units a year. The need for housing for transitioning foster youth has never been higher and Seaman said fundraising efforts for the village will continue over the summer.
“West Virginia has the highest population of children placed in foster care by percentage,” Seaman said. “We had received a one-year grant to do a national report on the state of affairs for kids when they are aging out of foster care. That led us to this whole initiative because so often, young people on their 18th birthday then become homeless, 38 percent which is a national tragedy, and 58 percent of the men end up in trouble with the law within the first 18 months after aging out of foster care.”
New Vision is now using those statistics to optimize opportunities for a better lifestyle for young men transitioning out of foster care. Seaman said most funds for housing or job development are not provided for the same location. The design of New Vision Village will provide both a place to live and work in the same location while offering young adults a stable environment.
Groundbreaking for New Vision Village is expected in the spring.
“We’ll get some shovels out and we’ll have some people from the bank, and we’ll invite some officials,“ Seaman said. “We’re looking at Martin Luther King Day as a possible date when we’ll at least officially launch the project. It’ll go fairly slow while the weather is cold and the ground is messed up, but once the good weather of spring comes, fairly soon the roads will start to develop, and it will be an exciting year for us.”