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Philanthropy

Retired Carmel Valley doctor helps foster youth get start in dentistry

Lahana Velez and Dr. Sherri Muchnick
Lahana Velez and Dr. Sherri Muchnick
/ Courtesy

Not long after Dr. Sherri Muchnick retired, she began looking for ways to give back to the community.

That’s when the Carmel Valley resident learned about Just in Time for Foster Youth, a San Diego nonprofit that provides resources and support to young adults aging out of the foster care system.

“I really loved the idea that these are transitioning foster youth,” said Muchnick, who worked as a marriage and family therapist, professor and consultant for 40 years before recently retiring. She continues to teach online courses at Capella University. “These are young people who have aged out of the system and are trying to get their lives started.”

As a mother to two grown sons and a granddaughter, Muchnick knows first-hand just how much support young adults need to succeed.

Often with little or no support, 40 to 50 percent of former foster youth become homeless within 18 months after emancipation, according to the Cities Counties Schools (CCS) Partnership, a collaborative effort of the California School Boards Association, California State Association of Counties and League of California Cities.

In addition, only 1 to 3 percent of former foster youth go on to graduate from college, while 25 percent end up in prison within two years of emancipation, according to the CCS Partnership.

“I know how much emotional support, financial support and the kind of connections it takes for young people to get started, become responsible adults and find their way in the world,” Muchnick said. “These youths don’t have that type of support.”

Muchnick first held a fundraising party at her home in support of Just in Time’s “My First Home for the Holidays” campaign.

With support from the community, Just in Time transforms empty apartments into warm homes filled with new and gently-used furnishings through its My First Home program. Muchnick’s November 2015 fundraiser raised $1,700 in cash and gift cards in one night. She also collected a garage full of in-kind donations.

“The response was so overwhelming,” Muchnick said. “It didn’t take a whole lot of effort to do, it was just a fun thing to do. People were just so generous.”

Not long after, Muchnick volunteered with Just in Time on a Saturday, helping former foster youth “shop” and select free household items for their new homes.

“It was so much fun and so exciting,” she recalled. “It was amazing.”

Lahana Velez
Lahana Velez
/ Courtesy

Today, Muchnick serves as a mentor to Lahana Velez through Just in Time’s Career Horizons program. She signed on for a 10-month commitment to serve as a career coach not long after the New Year.

“We were paired with each other, and I think it’s a really good match,” Muchnick said. “I’ve had a wonderful time working with her and I think she’s an amazing young woman.”

Since signing up for the program, Muchnick has helped Velez further her career.

After learning that the 23-year-old wanted to work as a dental assistant or dental hygienist, Muchnick contacted her dentist and asked if Velez could interview husband-and-wife team John Koett and Megan Olson. Instead, the Encinitas couple ended up interviewing Velez and today she works at Koett & Olson Dental three days a week.

“It’s a very exciting beginning of her career path,” Muchnick said.

Although Muchnick and Velez are only required to meet monthly to work on improving self-esteem, resume writing and interviewing skills, the pair often spend much more time together.

Muchnick’s friends have also supported Velez. Known as “the aunties,” the local group of friends took Velez to the salon prior to her interview. They’ve also taught Velez how to cook, hooked up her computer and printer, and often schedule lunch dates.

“They love her,” she said. “She’s so darling, you love her the minute you meet her.”

Once homeless, today Velez currently studies at MiraCosta College, trains as a dental assistant and also works at a retail shop, in addition to her Just in Time commitments.

“She’s learning a lot of things about herself,” Muchnick said. “It’s a big deal to have stability in her life. She’s done an amazing job.”

Just in Time for Foster Youth is currently accepting volunteers for Career Horizons and other programs. To volunteer or donate, visit www.jitfosteryouth.org.

“It takes a lot for a young person to get started, much more than people realize,” Muchnick said.

“I’m a big believer that people have more strengths and more abilities than they realize,” she added. “If they can get some support and some direction, people do amazing things. So having the opportunity to work with young people and do that has been pretty amazing.”