Why Jupiter resident helps youths transition from foster care

By Susan Salisbury – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Monday, May 08, 2017

Jeff DeMario is CEO of Vita Nova, Inc., a non-profit based in West Palm Beach that offers programs and services for 18- to 25-year-olds who have aged out of foster care in Palm Beach County.

The group operates an apartment complex where these young people can live while receiving support and guidance and offers other services designed to help them enroll in and graduate from college or trade school.

“Using a Life Coaching model we help these youth navigate through college when parental support is not available,” said DeMario, who has been CEO since 2010.

Name: Jeff DeMario

Age: 47

Hometown: Wappinger’s Falls, N.Y.

Where you live now: Jupiter

Education: Bachelor’s Degree, Psychology – Marist College; Master’s Degree, Social Work, University of Alabama

Family: My wife, Jill, is a fifth generation Florida native, and works for Planned Parenthood. We have two sons, Riley and Reece, ages 15 and 13, respectively.

About your company: Vita Nova began as Renaissance Village in the early 1990s with our founder, who believed wholeheartedly that children in foster care deserved better outcomes related to school, work, and wellness. Although he was right, we could not move forward with this original mission and in late 2005 our mission was changed to assist older foster youth who were exiting child welfare and becoming homeless instantly.

In 2006 we changed our name to embrace this new mission to help older foster youth find a “new life” beyond foster care and became Vita Nova, Inc.

We own and operate a thrift store to help raise awareness of our mission while creating a work training program.

Today, Vita Nova utilizes a team of nearly 50 full time and part time employees as well as volunteers. Our budget is close to $1.7 million — most of which we receive in the form of grants, donations and fundraising.

First paying job and what you learned from it: My first paying job was at K-Mart department store. K-Mart used to move a blue light throughout the store to signal the best deals in each department. For customers, the blue light special was about finding the best savings, but for employees it was where all of the high maintenance customers would congregate. After a while you would become adept with working with most challenging customers when the blue light came into your department.

I realized that if you can find a way to solve the most challenging problems, then most of the other problems are less challenging by default.

First break in the business: I was the assistant director of a jail that would allow youth offenders to work during the day and come back to lock up at night. I discovered that the head administrator was stealing the kids’ money. I confronted the issue with the head person, and the problem persisted.

Owners of the program came to visit one day and conducted their own investigation, and found out I was right. They fired the director and offered me the position. I turned it down. The big break was not being offered the bigger pay check, it was being able to stand up for a young person who still had rights despite being in a juvenile jail.

How your business has changed: Back when Vita Nova first started, youth were done with services from foster care at 18, but now they can stay until 21. Many youth take advantage of this opportunity, but do not use the time wisely to complete school, save money, or get working, so the problems we saw at 18 we now see at 21 years old.

In addition, we have discovered many more youth who are on the streets, without families who are not from foster care. These include youth exiting jail programs, or run-away youth.

Finally, helping and connecting with teens today is a whole lot different than it was 15 or 20 years ago. Youth today are very connected to their devices, and social media, more than ever before. Tragically we are seeing this with youth committing suicide on Facebook, or bullying one another online, or creating viral videos of school beatings. When you add homelessness to the mix it becomes a recipe for disaster for youth who will do all kinds of things to keep their phones turned on. The good news is that using text messages and social media with today’s youth can help deliver important messages instantly, and we can locate youth in a variety of ways using Facebook and other sources to make sure they are safe and sound.

Best business book you read: “Question Behind the Question” by John G. Miller.

Best piece of business advice you received: “Don’t come to me with the problem unless you have a viable solution in mind too.”

What you tell young people about your business: My advice is that “the truth is the truth no matter where it comes from.” We have received grants that started off as ideas from youth who wanted to see us start a new service, had sales increase at our thrift store based on a simple request from a customer, and saved the life of a youth when an intern suggested a course of action. My point is that it does not always matter how many years you have, or how decorated you are in the field to have a good idea — just say it!

Many successful people learn from failure. Do you have a failure you can share and what you learned from it? I once hired a friend for a position in which they were more than qualified. I thought that since our relationship was great that it would apply to others in the workplace. Not so. After a while things became toxic and the team did not feel they could complain to me since I was friends with the person causing so many problems. Before I knew it, staff morale was at an all-time low, and I created a terrible work environment.

I learned that it is very difficult to hire and supervise your friends. Just easier to see them after work. It is also very important to address problems in the workplace right away.

What do you see ahead for Palm Beach County? I believe you will find Palm Beach County taking a stronger stance with helping the homeless individuals and families. I believe there are strategic plans in place involving youth, community stakeholders, homeless services providers, and funders that will help in ways that will set us apart from the rest of the state.

Power lunch spot: Maplewood Bagel in Jupiter has the best coffee and sandwiches around. It is tucked away, so you can get business done without the crowds, and they have an amazing pastrami on rye.

Where we’d find you when you’re not at the office: Shopping for vinyl records at a vintage record shop. The older the record and more obscure the location the better.

Favorite smartphone app: Maps. I am always getting lost.

What is the most important trait you look for when hiring? Ambition. If you can’t get fired up on your own about the work we are doing to help homeless youth in the county then there is nothing I can pay you that will either.


Photo: Jeff DeMario, the CEO of Vita Nova Inc., a West Palm Beach-based non-profit which assists young adults who have aged out of foster care in Palm Beach County, Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post