Hoboken has changed a lot since Maritza Figueroa left in 2001, but so has she. As a teenage mother living in the Andrew Jackson Gardens public housing project, Figueroa looked out at an uncertain future. Despite the odds, she rose to earn a GED, associate’s degree, and bachelor’s degree, pursue a master’s degree, raise three children, own her own house, and found Created Families, Inc., a group home for foster children in St. Cloud, Fla.
Figueroa left Hoboken to make it happen, but like Frank Sinatra, that doesn’t mean she forgot where she came from. Over the past two weeks, she was back in Hoboken, taking eight children and teens from Created Families around the city that raised her.
Between July 22 and July 27, the group toured Hoboken and New York City, met with Robert DiVincent, the interim director of the Hoboken Housing Authority, and Captain Charles Campbell from the Hoboken Police Department, and served meals to over 100 homeless people at Grace Church in Jersey City.
“We didn’t feel like tourists; we felt like part of Ms. Maritza’s family.”—Jojo
One big family
Figueroa’s passion for working with kids was born in Hoboken. She was a key player in the early days of the Homework Club, the afterschool center for children at the Hoboken Housing Authority that grew to become the Jubilee Center.
In St. Cloud, Figueroa started working with foster kids in a mental health facility. When the 92-bed foster home Figueroa was managing closed in 2012 due to lack of demand, there were five children left over who could not find a home.
“I had already built a relationship with these kids, so it was just like leaving my own kids behind,” said Figueroa. She decided to start her own group home in order to take them in.
Now housing six boys and six girls in separate homes, Created Families offers a level of services well beyond a dry roof and a warm bed. Adult supervisors live with the minors at all times, providing meals, transportation, independent life skill classes, mentoring, and individual counseling.
“We basically provide them a family-like environment,” said Figueroa, “enrolling them in school, taking them to doctors, enrolling them in extracurricular activities.”
Overall, Created Families aims to expand the horizon of possibilities for its children. Of the 50-plus youths who have come through the program, seven in 10 are pursuing higher education or have secured a self-sufficient job.
The trip to Hoboken and New York City followed directly from those values. “One of the things that was important for me was to allow [the kids] to see and explore different things,” said Figueroa.
In Hoboken , the group spent time on the waterfront and in Columbus Park, and hit up culinary landmarks like Biggie’s Clam Bar and Fiore’s Deli. “Fiore’s was the best thing,” said Figueroa. “I had to bring my staff, of course.”
In New York City, the group saw Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, climbed the Statue of Liberty, and visited Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, Ground Zero, and Times Square.
Most of the minors in Created Families had never left Florida before the trip, much less visited a city of New York’s caliber. “Even the PATH station was a big thing for them,” said Figueroa.
Not surprisingly, the trips into New York came with some culture shock for the kids.
“When we was walking, people never said excuse me; they just kept on walking,” said 17-year-old Jojo. “I was the only one saying, ‘excuse you; excuse you.’”
Still, Jojo said she felt welcomed in Hoboken and would love to live there in the future.
“We didn’t feel like tourists,” she said, “we felt like part of Ms. Maritza’s family.”
Carlo Davis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.