I met and started to mentor this young woman seven years ago through the District’s Family and Youth Initiative. It is a local nonprofit that supports older teens in foster care who otherwise would have no caring long-term adults in their lives. Specifically, this includes matching teens with mentors, host families and adoptive families.
For those not familiar with foster care, a child is placed in care after an investigation finds the child has experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment by a primary caregiver. When thinking about the perceptions of foster care, a number of descriptors and experiences comes to mind, but I wasn’t prepared for loneliness and perseverance.
The young woman who texted me is a survivor, always finding a way to provide for herself and her 3-year-old son, despite the many obstacles she has faced. On her 21st birthday and last day in the D.C. foster care system, her case worker gave her $300 for her clothing allowance and a trash bag of belongings. She had arranged to stay with an aunt, but that arrangement lasted maybe a week. In the nearly five years since exiting foster care, this young woman and her son have lived in at least six places, including a short stint at the infamous D.C. General homeless shelter.
This young woman did not receive her high school diploma because of red tape with the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, although she met graduation requirements at the Virginia high school she attended. She has experienced more trauma than most of us could imagine and has multiple mental health diagnoses. Holding down a regular job is a struggle. She often does not know where her next meal will come from.
Yet she persists and maintains a positive attitude. Most of us would have given up long ago.
A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that “when transitioning out of foster care, young people face a surplus of challenges and a shortage of support.” The D.C. Family and Youth Initiative (DCFYI) is committed to helping provide lifelong connections for teens in care. The District provides some support (for two years only) for young people after they age out of the foster care system, but services are never enough. One caring, committed adult in the life of a child in foster care can make all the difference between struggle and success. Building relationships — especially with teenagers — takes time, and trust is hard to come by.
DCFYI volunteers make lasting commitments to these young people. I am just one of many mentors who have stayed with a teen well into adulthood.
Other DCFYI mentors have played an integral role in helping their mentees gain a stronger foothold into adulthood: helping with studies, walking through every step of getting into college, helping to navigate processes such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and D.C. government financial aid, selecting a career path and advocating as a parental type would.
I wish I could point to more signs of success for the young woman I mentioned above as a result of our mentor-mentee relationship. However, I know that by at least offering a listening ear, helping find social services, navigating bureaucratic processes and providing a good meal every time we meet, she has come to trust me. And through her authenticity and perseverance despite the odds, I have come to admire and trust her.