The Smile House in Eau Claire to help youth at risk of homelessness

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- Once foster care children reach the age of 18 and graduate, they are no longer eligible to be a part of the foster care system.

Statistics show more than 23,000 young adults face that situation every year.

A home called The Smile House on the west side of Eau Claire will be used to provide a unique program to help those youth at-risk of becoming homeless.

"SMILE" stands for support system, mentoring, independent living, and education.

Joe Luginbill, founder of this new program, said the Smile House will be a transitional program for teenagers and young adults aging out of foster care.

Luginbill said he has been working on a plan for the Smile House since 2016. He said the name for the home was inspired by a Mother Teresa quote, “Peace begins with a smile.”

“There is a gap and there is a lack of services in this area for young people who age out of foster care and then become at severe risk for homelessness,” said Luginbill.

According to the National Foster Institute, after reaching the age of 18, 20 percent of the children who were in foster care will become instantly homeless.

The Smile House will provide various services, including educational opportunities, such as GED preparation, mental health care, and life skills building. It will be funded by donations to the Luginbill Children's Foundation and private grants.

“This is a really crucial service to really help a specific population in the community that otherwise has been underserved, under the radar, and in some ways falling through the cracks,” said Luginbill.

Project lead, Sarah Strunk, said being a part of this project is especially important to her.

“I struggled with substance abuse issues, mental health disorders, and I was an at-risk youth,” said Strunk. “I've overcome a lot. I've been sober from alcohol for 18 months. It means a lot to be involved.”

The team working on this project says the goal is to ensure that youth aging out of foster care have a place to belong in the Chippewa Valley.

”It’s very important that they know that they are wanted, welcome, and loved in this place,” said Strunk.

The Smile House is currently being remodeled. Luginbill said the home should be ready to house youth in 2020. He said it will have 24/7 adult coverage by staff or volunteers.

Youth can get into the smile house through a self-referral or a referral through an outside agency, like a caseworker.

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