Two women came together to create Set for Life, a nonprofit that transforms vulnerable teens’ places into proper homes.
by Portia Ladrido
Los Angeles is known to be the hub of America’s film and television industry. With this comes the sheer magnitude of materials used for imaginations to come to life – superhero costumes, 1940s backdrops, disposable cars, and what have you.
After the release of a music video or the airing of a commercial, the set dressings used for these usually just sit in storage rooms, collecting dust. Diana Kramer, an art director in LA who’s been with the entertainment industry for over 18 years, wondered how else she could better make use of these things.
Last year, her friend, Caitlyn Bothwell, a Court Appointed Special Advocate for foster youths, had started a fundraising that will enable a foster teen to have basic furniture at her new home. Diana saw this fundraiser, reached out to Caitlyn, and the two decided to make their worlds collide and start Set For Life.
Diana and Caitlyn talk to INKLINE to share the stories of these at-risk youths and how they’ve intervened to somehow normalise the circumstances of these children.
INKLINE: Tell us how the both of you joined forces to set up this nonprofit. What were your backgrounds that enabled you to pursue this?
Diana Kramer: I’ve been working on TV commercials for about 18 years. When we make these commercials, we often buy an enormous amount of set dressing. They’re used on the set and used only once – whether they’re lamps or bed sheets or what have you. Just to achieve the style that we like, we need to buy these things.
For many years, I’ve asked, clients have asked, and agencies have asked: where can we make these things go to good use? Caitlyn it turns about became a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate). She had needs, I had stuff, and thats what happened basically.
Caitlyn Bothwell: I started mentoring one foster teen who was 15 when I met her, and I realised that when she turns 18 she was going to have to move out of her group home. I started researching where she could go and what she could do and I realised that there was this huge gap in care with foster kids in California. When you’re 18, you still have access to some funding. In Los Angeles county, for example, there are 3,500 kids that are in this age bracket of 18-21 but there are only 500 beds available for them.
I went down this path with Julissa (the foster teen) and I had to find her an apartment then. We were reaching out trying to raise money to purchase a bed and purchase a couch and all these basic necessities that kids have no access to. I started a gofundme and Diana wrote back to me saying, ‘I have so much stuff that I have access to working as an art director and I feel like I can furnish the entire apartment. Let’s meet up and talk about it.’
We realised we had a great recipe where I can help find the kids and do that side of things, and Diana can access all the furniture and household stuff, and together, we have done houses for nine kids so far.
I: How long does it take to set the apartment up? What’s the process like?
D: We’ve had various lead times with these kids. We prefer that it’s at least a week or two, as we like to speak to them and kind of get an idea of the types of people that they are. We tend to collect the items and recreate as quickly as we can. We store them, source them, we pack up the trucks, we head out to the location, we arrange with the kids when they’re gonna be moving in, and exactly what time is good for them, and we show up with our team of wonderful volunteers.
C: We also partner with Safe Place For Youth, which is a drop-in homeless shelter and they have this amazing case worker that get them into housing through this program called Rapid Rehousing. Their lead time is a lot longer; it takes them a couple of months to help secure the actual locations and then we go in and the kids literally have nothing. They’re using the blankets that they had used on the streets. We go in and just make it a home.
I: Was it a surprise for you guys to discover these things as you go along?
D: Yes. For me, personally. Huge surprise at the education level and the intellect and the drive of a lot of these kids that I didn’t know were homeless. It was a huge shock to me. It was touring Safe Place For Youth with the homeless kids in particular that surprised me. It never occurred to me until Caitlyn made me aware of it what happens to them after they’ve gone through the group home from ages 12-18. These are young girls who are very easy to victimise.
I: What’s the specific demographic of these children? Where do they typically come from?
C: Most of the kids that we work with are from LA county. The foster youth are pretty much all from LA county. We also have one girl who was actually from Eastern Europe and her boyfriend was from LA.
D: Caitlyn and I were discussing this yesterday that the foster teens tend to be female and the homeless kids tend to be either a couple or male. I think the boyfriends tend to protect the girls on the street and then with the foster teens, the girls are more likely to stay in a group home environment whereas the boys tend to run away and end up homeless.
C: A lot of teenage boys end up in jail and gangs, and girls end up getting trafficked. Working in this field, you hear the horrible stories about trafficking and you just don’t realise how prevalent it is. The group home that I was working with with my foster teen – we had three girls who were recruited into prostitution in one year.
It’s been shocking and it’s been such an incredible thing to be able to make such a tangible difference in their lives and create a space where they’re safe and secure and have their lives feel a little bit more normalised.
You just can’t believe that it’s happening right under your nose. These are kids that are going to school with your friends’ kids. You just never know but it’s right under the surface. It’s been shocking and it’s been such an incredible thing to be able to make such a tangible difference in their lives and create a space where they’re safe and secure and have their lives feel a little bit more normalised.
I: When you improve their apartments, do you talk to the kids on a personal level or do you kind of isolate your relationship with them from the work that you do?
C: We definitely talk to them. The boy that we’re helping on Saturday just really started sharing with Diana that he grew up living in motels down town and that his dad was a dealer. They’re usually so happy to have someone to talk to that seems stable and caring. Especially kids that have gone through the foster system, they just have such a random string of adults that end up participating in their lives. They’re not used to having any sort of consistency so we do try to build relationships with them and continue to communicate with them.
I: Have you talked about the sustainability of this project?
D: Yes, definitely. We have a future plan to potentially start renting for commercials and TV; we’d like to rent props and set dressing so our future plans include building a training facility for the kids where the kids can come and work. That will allow for training of these kids for sales, computing, accounting, inventory, shipping, receiving – all sorts of different types of life skills and occupational skills, that they can have whilst creating a salary for them and an income to sustain our training needs.
We’re excited about it. The reception here in Los Angeles has been incredible. It is a place that has a lot of film makers that have big hearts and big visions, and pretty deep pockets and they just don’t really know how they can give. Some are very spread thin with the way that they give but this is a way in their own career and in their own projects that they’re doing that they can give back without having to do even much, really.
I: What has been your favourite moment/s with Set For Life?
D: Every single child that we helped has been outstanding. Unfortunately, one of our girls was at work when we finished. And she was just texting me, ‘I’m crying, this is better than I imagined.’ Every single one of these kids is so special to us and really is so grateful. That gratitude – you just can’t get that anywhere else.
C: My favourite thing is when I go back to the shelter, Safe Place for Youth, and I hear about the kids being so proud of their apartments and they’re showing pictures to all of the staff members. That just makes me so happy.
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.