Five Questions (5Q) With…
Jeff DeMario, CEO of Vita Nova
Jeff DeMario has spent his career helping kids and young adults who have no place to turn.
As Chief Executive Officer of Vita Nova, a nonprofit serving Palm Beach, Florida, Jeff and his team are focused on reversing the tide for homeless youth.
1. Jeff, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to Vita Nova.
Strange things can happen when you attend a funeral. Back in the early 2000s, I was working for another child welfare agency, when the CEO’s husband passed away. I was younger then, and even though I never met the man, I felt an obligation to attend the funeral. The priest giving the eulogy was charismatic, and had the audience on their feet, laughing and celebrating this man’s life. Afterward, I approached the priest to thank him for his inspiring words, and he began to talk about a nonprofit he was starting for older foster youth. We met for coffee, and the rest was history.
I am a native New Yorker – born and raised. Since I was 18 years old I have been working with youth in various capacities. My first experience was running summer camps at the YMCA for inner-city youth. I thought that job would be a piece of cake, but those youngsters tested my soul, and that job ultimately became a defining moment for me. As a result, I fell in love with social work. Two colleges and a master’s degree later, I am proud of having nearly 30 years of experience helping so many people. Someone once said that working as a social worker is more of a calling than a profession. I tend to agree.
2. What is the story behind Vita Nova and who does Vita Nova serve?
Who can successfully live on their own at 18 years old without family support? If you are in the foster care system, your 18th birthday can often result in nowhere to go. We help young adults transfer from the foster care system and homelessness to independence by providing a stable, nurturing environment.
“Vita Nova” is Latin for “New Life.” Our organization, Vita Nova, is a safe bridge to independence for former foster care, LGBTQ+ and other homeless youth through supportive housing, education, employment and life-skills training. As the voice of homeless young adults, Vita Nova is working to eliminate homelessness for youth ages 18 to 25 years old in Palm Beach County.
3. The past 18 months have been difficult for everyone. How has the pandemic impacted the homeless population and your organization?
We could have never imagined the impact of the coronavirus on our country and certainly not on our most vulnerable population, the homeless. Specifically, homeless youth have so many challenges daily, and you add in a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, it’s hard to contemplate. Not having access to personal protective equipment, basic needs, and, in some cases, shelter, can be so scary for a young person living on the streets during a pandemic; however, we were fortunate to receive a great deal of support from local foundations to help us continue our mission of helping youth without families to turn to.
This community support allowed us to pivot and provide services in new and innovative ways. The ability to serve youth remotely, connecting them with iPads to reach our staff was helpful. We also created a food distribution site and partnered with a mobile shower unit to give those on the streets access to a safe place to shower and get clean clothes. We distributed masks, gloves and hand sanitizer along with backpacks filled with personal hygiene products.
4. What are Vita Nova’s key programs?
Like everyone, we are still faced with challenges. But we are excited about our work and the success stories of the young adults we serve.
Our key programs include:
Vita Nova Village: A transitional living program for young adults that have “aged” out of the system or are homeless. Residents participate in life-skills classes, receive employment help, health care and mental health counseling.
Independent Living Services: We provide assistance to young adults (18-23) who were formally in foster care in Palm Beach County, helping with life skills and the education necessary to live independently.
The Spot: A safe, nonjudgmental drop-in center for homeless youth (18-25), providing resources and programming to eliminate the risk for homelessness.
5. What can the community do to help Vita Nova’s youth programs succeed?
I am sure the easy answer here would be to ask for money, but that is really not the only answer to help Vita Nova succeed. Success for us is not just about having long-time donors.
Instead, we want answers. We do not pretend to have all the answers to solve youth homelessness, but I believe it can be solved. For that to happen, people who have the time and inclination to learn more can meet me for coffee sometime. We have some smart minds in our community waiting to be challenged with this riddle called homelessness. Here is my cell phone – call me – 561-427-3996, and we can meet, learn more about each other and come up with solutions to help the youth we serve.
To learn more about Vita Nova and the programs they offer, visit https://www.vitanovainc.org