Wanda Finnie has a career of over 30 years that reflects a passionate commitment to supporting and advocating on behalf of youth and other often voiceless populations. As an attorney, executive leader, educator and mentor, she has been fearless in her efforts to ensure protection, fairness and opportunity for our most vulnerable members of society. She is a woman of strength and a visionary leader who embodies a balance of personal and professional experience, intellectual ability, and deeply rooted dedication to success and improving communities.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey, I moved to Miami in 2000 with my husband and two then small children. It has been the diverse vibrancy and growth that have me proud to be a part of this community for the past 17 years. I have watched the economic and cultural progression of Miami create opportunities unmatched elsewhere; opportunities that place us in the category of world class cities. From a personal standpoint, I feel fortunate to have raised my children in a place where they could be exposed to and learn from so much cultural and demographic diversity and excitement. Having lived in several cities, what this city offers cannot be matched, and I am always proud to say “I live in Miami!”.
One of the most overlooked populations is youth who come out of the foster system at 18. These young people leave a system detached–facing homelessness and all of the other trappings that could result in failure as adults. Because they are not juveniles, they often become invisible to society as they move through an adult world unprepared and alone. Youth aging out of foster care is the little-known tragedy that occurs every day to 28,000 kids in the US. The statistics are daunting for former foster and at-risk youth who age out without being adopted or permanently reuniting with their families; they are more likely to end up homeless, uneducated, incarcerated, pregnant, unemployed or involved in substance abuse. These are not kids who have chosen their paths, or even had a say in where they end up; they are the most vulnerable because they are true victims of the circumstances of others.
The first way to find a solution for a problem is to bring widespread awareness to it, so that people recognize the goodness and grit of youth leaving foster care and the uphill struggle they have to understand adulthood. Casa Valentina did that 12 years ago and is still one of only a handful of programs providing the full package of needed services. It is crucial that the Miami community recognize the need for affordable housing and life skills—the magic combination—so that former foster youth can reach their full potential. Miami is a particularly difficult community in which to find affordable housing, but we must if we are to protect this special group of youth who have experienced vulnerability through no fault of their own. Every child deserves the opportunity to be safe, educated and feel wanted. Having worked with the systems that cross over to protect our children (Dept. of Children and Families, Dept. of Juvenile Justice, and Dept. of Education), we know that lowering the risk factors and ensuring the protective for children provides the foundation for stronger, more resilient, and mentally and physically healthy young adults. The basic comforts that will help these young people achieve are the same things that every child needs: a home, a caring invested support system, and help with critical life skills. Like every young person, if we can give them safe, affordable housing, and wrap them tight with support and survival life skills, the odds fall very much in favor of success; that becomes a win-win for everyone!