Photo by Sean Scheidt

Large hearts drawn with a black marker, silver butterfly stickers, and gold cursive letters that spell “Be your own kind of beautiful” adorn a sea-green wall in 18-year-old Sabrea Woodberry’s third-floor bedroom. A box crammed with shampoo bottles and other toiletries sits atop a white dresser pushed snugly against a window. At one end of the room, about two dozen pairs of shoes, ranging from canvas sneakers to glittery-gold spike heels, form three tidy rows by the bedroom door. Folded bath towels hang on the ornate black metal footboard of the bed, which is covered by a deep purple bedspread bearing a full-length image of Justin Bieber.

Tucked under the eaves of an aging red-brick colonial on a quiet street in Takoma Park, the space doesn’t look much different from many teens’ bedrooms—until you see the list taped to the wall. The white sheet of paper, which identifies Sabrea’s room as Room No. 5, includes three handwritten rules: “Empty the trash,” “Pick up items off the floor” and “Remove empty water bottles.”

Sabrea lives with six other teens at the Helen Smith Girls’ Home, a residence run by Hearts & Homes for Youth. The nonprofit based in Burtonsville provides services and programs for Maryland youths dealing with adversity. Though sparsely furnished, the small rooms at the group home are painted in cheery colors: burnt orange in the dining room, a warm golden yellow in the kitchen, and yellow-green in the living room, where the girls can flop on soft, beige couches.

On an afternoon in late June, Sabrea, a petite young woman with a stylish bob and deep brown eyes, smooths the bedspread, erasing the wrinkles that were creasing the face of her longtime crush. “I love Justin Bieber because I feel like his music has been there the whole time I’ve been in foster care,” she says. “I became a Belieber because I wanted to be a part of something.”  

Staff members cook dinner every night, but encourage the girls to make their own breakfast and lunch. One of Sabrea’s favorite things to cook is ramen noodles. Photos by Michael Ventura

Like Sabrea, all of the girls living in the Takoma Park group home have been referred by the state’s Department of Social Services. According to Hearts & Homes President and CEO Chloe Pérez, the organization serves kids who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect, resulting in problems regulating their emotions, trusting others and understanding how healthy relationships work.

“They come to us with these issues, but they also come to us amazingly resilient and still have a great sense of humor and the ability to rebuild relationships,” Pérez says. “It would be hard for me to wake up in the morning and face the day, and these kids get up and do it over and over again.”

Staff provide individual, group and family therapy on-site. In the home 24 hours a day, they also teach the girls independent living skills and offer guidance, support and educational advocacy.

Sabrea was placed in the home in July 2015, about 7½ years after she was removed from the care of her mother, who had problems with drugs. That January day set the teen on a path that would land her in more than a half-dozen foster homes and nearly destroy her ability to trust anyone.

During the past year, Sabrea has found a stability at the home that had eluded her since she was born. “Group homes don’t just up and root you out, unless you do something really bad,” Sabrea says. “I’m well-behaved. I follow directions. I come back when they ask me to, so there’s no reason that they’d just be like, ‘Get out.’ ”
Building self-esteem, confidence and a sense of security are some of Hearts & Homes for Youth’s primary goals. And that’s exactly why the staff rallied around Sabrea last fall, when she expressed interest in entering the Miss Maryland Teen USA pageant.

Sabrea had applied for the pageant and was interviewed and selected to represent Takoma Park. But because of a misunderstanding, she missed the deadline for paying about $1,100 in registration and lodging fees.

“I called the woman who was in charge of the pageant and begged and pleaded, and said we have to make this happen,” Pérez says. Pageant officials said Sabrea could participate if she paid the registration fees within 24 hours. Pérez and the Hearts & Homes team started making calls and asking for donations on Facebook. “One of our girls who has spent her life in foster care has been selected to participate in the Miss Teen Maryland contest!” the post said. “We need your help!!! She does not have any family to support her.”

The response was overwhelming. And the support and attention Sabrea received was unlike anything she had ever experienced.

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Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at