Erwin Viado Celes hanged himself last month, just six months after he "aged out" of Hawaii’s foster care system, and now his friends are trying to raise enough money to pay for his funeral and burial.
Celes’ suicide highlights the sudden gap that island foster children frequently fall into once they become legal adults but have no reliable support or even a bed of their own, said David Louis, executive director of the nonprofit group Heart Gallery Hawaii, which works to find resources for foster children.
Services for Erwin Viado Celes
» Where: Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 91-1004 North Road, Ewa Beach
When he turned 18, Celes received court approval to stay in Hawaii’s foster care system for another year — until his 19th birthday on March 12, Louis said.
After leaving his foster family, Celes bounced between homes in Waianae, Mililani and Waipahu until he was found dead Sept. 7 in Hawaii Kai, said Elena Raymond, Celes’ friend and co-worker.
Celes spent 14 years in foster care and "didn’t talk about it a lot," Raymond said, "but he would tell us bits and pieces about being in foster homes."
Louis called Celes’ suicide "a preventable tragedy."
Hawaii has about 200 teen- agers who "age out of foster care" each year and are "left to figure out how the world works the day they turn 18," Louis said. He estimates that 20 to 50 teenagers each year find themselves in plights similar to Celes’.
"They may say they’re living with auntie or uncle, but they’re really homeless and have no support," Louis said.
Since November, Celes had been working as a shift leader at the Wahiawa Little Caesars Pizza restaurant, loved to dance in the store to Usher’s "Oh My Gosh" during slow times, was training to become a mixed martial arts fighter, bought a 1986 Toyota Supra that he called the "Batmobile" and dreamed of going to college one day on the mainland.
"He was the class clown," said Kimo Negron, Celes’ co-worker at Little Caesars. "When I was down, he always brought me back up."
Celes’ co-workers printed his name on their Little Caesars T-shirts and created donation boxes with Celes’ picture at the Wahiawa store where he worked and at the Ewa Beach store where he had previously worked.
Customers at the Wahiawa store recognize Celes’ picture and have donated about $700 since his death, said store manager Aldah Cendana.
Friends have collected about $4,000 — but are still $5,000 short for Celes’ burial tomorrow at Mililani Memorial Park, Cendana said.
Louis estimates that dozens of other Hawaii foster children also contemplate killing themselves after they turn 18 and find themselves with no support.
"There’s a hole in our system that needs to be closed," Louis said.
Hawaii’s Department of Human Services has been improving services for teenagers who leave the foster care system, said Sharon Simms, a social worker and board member of Heart Gallery Hawaii.
But there is not enough transitional housing or resources to take care of everyone, Simms said.
She has seen former foster care children become homeless and end up at the Institute for Human Services shelter.
Others get by "bouncing from home to home trying to stay with friends," Simms said. "But an awful lot of them end up homeless or in jail. We need to do better."