In his teens, when a snowstorm left him in an underpass for that night's shelter, Asa Gilmartin got a White Castle hamburger and told himself one day his life would be normal again.
Before Gilmartin's father lost his job, and spiraled into a vortex of drugs and alcohol, before his mother battled mental illness and spent weeks on end in bed, before this early neglect; and a ride through the worst of the foster care system, which dropped him straight into an uncertain transition that led him to homelessness, Gilmartin can remember devouring a mound of the hamburgers with his family on Friday nights.
"Before all the headaches and fist fights and lock-ups, things were normal once and there's no evidence to suggest that they can't be normal again," Gilmartin told VICE Impact. "Maybe I'll be driving back from work one day, and I can pick up a mountain of cheeseburgers and bring them home to my family."
Now 22, and in housing, Asa is one of the first people in the country to participate in FOCUS, a new program designed to make sure youth don't leave foster homes only to end up on the street or in abusive environments.
"FOCUS is designed to connect youth who age out of foster care with caring adults, critical resources, and their larger community," FOCUS director Kristen Golden told VICE Impact. FOCUS is a national initiative of Friends of Children, a 30-year old independent nonprofit organization that has advocated for the interests of more than 12,000 children in the child welfare system in Massachusetts.
"Like all of us, young people who have experienced foster care want a sense of belonging and to be surrounded by people who care about them."
For three years, a team of three adult volunteers come together as a team to guide, mentor and provide access to resources and services for the unique needs of their young participant. Together, they create an individual Milestone Plan for what the young person would like to accomplish during the next three years. Adult team members help the youth to explore their interests and develop their talents and skills; go to college, get a job, or live in their first apartment; find a sense of belonging and purpose by joining a community group or organization--all the while cheering them on and encouraging them when they face the inevitable setbacks of this major transition.
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The overarching goal is to launch the youth into supported adulthood and into the fabric of the community. The pilot launches this September in western Massachusetts, with plans to be in at least five cities or regions by 2020.
"The 23,000 young people, ages 18-21, who leave the foster care system each year without permanent families or strong community connections often face terrible outcomes," said Golden. "They frequently end up homeless, incarcerated, drug-addicted, trafficked, or pregnant."
The data is dire. On any given day, there are nearly 428,000 kids in US foster care, and 26,000 young people age-out of foster care each year. By age 26, 36 percent of former foster youths whose outcomes were known had reported at least one episode of homelessness according to a 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health. Per the National Foster Youth Institute, only 50 percent graduate from high school. By virtue of being separated from their family – in which there was some level of abuse or neglect - the Foster Care Alumni Study states roughly 25 percent of foster youth suffer poor mental health with the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder double that of US war veteran. Of the known cases of youth trafficked for sex, it's estimated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that 60-70 percent had been in the foster care system.
"When you're living on the streets or in foster care, sometimes you have to do unfortunate things to survive," said Gilmartin, who heard the initial pitch for FOCUS and provided feedback to staff, "This program will help people to integrate into society in a real way."
Golden said it was imperative to design the program's goals with the active participation of youth to ensure it's the best answer to their most pressing needs.
"Like all of us, young people who have experienced foster care want a sense of belonging and to be surrounded by people who care about them," said Golden. "The volunteers are regular folks, not social workers. We are trying to shed the state-system feel, which is a challenge for the young people to wrap their minds around. Many of them have never had a person in their life who wasn't paid to be with them."
"It's hard to build the foundations of trust in a relationship with someone who is paid to care," said Gilmartin. "This program has made me feel validated. Other ones I've been in are simply looking for compliance or they give you the boot."
The organic relationship that evolved between Friends of Children Executive Director Jane Lyons and now 24-year-old mother, college graduate and former foster care youth Devonne McLaughlin is the inspiration for FOCUS.
"When you're living on the streets or in foster care, sometimes you have to do unfortunate things to survive."
Lyons became a mentor to McLaughlin during her college years. She helped find her a place to stay over holiday breaks when the dorms closed and even appealed to her broader community to fund a car and housing when McLaughlin became pregnant and needed immediate support to complete college.
"I was so willing to accept the support," McLaughlin told VICE Impact. "To have the outpouring of people who were willing to help when they heard my story was a great feeling."
"I understood on a deeper level what it means to be a true help," said Lyons. "When I think about being an anchor" - the name for the lead member of the FOCUS support team - "it means being open to a young person who wants to chart their own future and doesn't know what that exactly means - like many of us. It means you have to be open to understanding that the kind of support expected on a Monday might be different on a Friday."
Lyons said the number of people committing to volunteer and the community response to the launch of the program has been heart-warming.
"Jane and Kristen have already affected my life in a major way in a short amount of time," said Asa. "I'm excited to see what they can do for other kids because there are other sad stories out there and maybe they can help kids from never feeling some of the hardship that I felt."
The FOCUS initiative plans to scale in part by partnering with local and national organizations working to support foster care alumni. Golden said they are open to whatever ways individuals and organizations can help, providing skills, expertise, resources, or opportunities
to enrich participants' lives.
Find out how to make a contribution to FOCUS now. Also, check out VICE's featured documentary Shelter , by filmmakers Craig and Brent Renaud, which showcases the volatile lives of New Orleans's homeless youth. Also, consider supporting front-line organizations serving the young people featured in the Renaud Brothers' groundbreaking series Last Chance High, now airing on VICELAND.