- Associated Press - Friday, April 25, 2014

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - Like others who spent time in foster care, Keith Roberts has struggled to trust adults placed in his life to help him.

It was natural, Roberts said, that he had some reservations when he met with West End Neighborhood House Executive Director Paul Calistro about joining a program designed to help former foster children find employment after becoming adults.

But after learning more from Calistro about the program, Roberts said he began changing his mind.

“I realized they’re not here to just take advantage of us,” Roberts said. “They’re here to help.”

Roberts is among the eight employees that make up the staff at “popdot signs and graphics,” a sign production and installation business created by West End and long-time printing and graphic design company, Sir Speedy Wilmington.

All of popdot’s employees came from Bright Spot, the program created by West End that involves taking adults who lived in foster care and training them in urban agriculture, financial literacy, telephone etiquette and customer service.

Calistro, whose organization helps clients find employment, among other charitable services, said popdot is the first for-profit venture West End has created. He said one of the big objectives behind popdot is to teach the employees skills that could be valuable later in life. He said popdot also offers full-time employment with benefits.

“For disadvantaged youth, there are just not enough job opportunities,” Calistro said. “Most jobs available are unreliable.”

In fact, experts say that people who lived in foster care often experience developmental problems and lower educational achievement.

A report from the Future of Children, a collaboration between Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, said more than 75 percent of 3,026 New York foster care alumni interviewed said they did not remain in their schools after being placed in foster care. Future of Children also said the respondents reported not feeling prepared to support themselves after leaving foster care.

The products made by popdot include banners, car wraps and floor, window and wall graphics for businesses. The business shares space with Sir Speedy, which allocated 900 to 1,000 of its 5,000 square feet of its space at 1010 N. Union St. to popdot.

Danielle Cunningham, a popdot employee who has a 5-month-old child, said she’s glad to have a full-time job with benefits.

“We’re learning the graphics business, customer service, design, sizing. Everything from top to bottom,” she said. “We can pretty much do anything. Customer service, you can take that into any job.”

Calistro said West End and Sir Speedy hope popdot becomes profitable, which he said would allow the business to double its staff and expand to other parts of Delaware in the future.

“We have plans to increase more as we do more sales,” he said, adding that popdot has about 40 clients. “Potentially, this could make numerous jobs as we replicate it.”

The business has spent much of its first two months training employees, testing products and renovating the space it was going to operate in. On April 17, Gov. Jack Markell attended the business’ grand opening.

Roberts, 22, said it was really uplifting to see top public figures visit a place that’s going to aid him a great deal later in life. He said Markell’s visit gave him some more reassurance about the people helping him now.

Roberts said he’s also glad that popdot will aim to help other Delaware foster children when they become adults.

“It’s real encouraging to know it’s not just for us,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”

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