The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Mentors Get and Give
A New York City program lets adults and youth help each other
Tayia Day

I was in foster care for a year and a half, from age 10 to 11. During that time, I never had a mentor or a group where I could share my thoughts and feelings with other foster children. I didn’t have a therapist or anyone else to talk about what was going on with me. I mostly kept my feelings inside.

I would have liked a person to talk to or play games with. Foster care is tough, and I wanted to know how other kids dealt with it. I also wanted to talk to older people about their experience in foster care so I could know what to expect.

Last month, I got to see the kind of group I wanted back then. It was a new mentor-mentee program at the foster care agency SCO Family of Services.

The program was started by Stephen Hanmer, SCO’s Director of Education and Permanency Support. He started the mentor-mentee program with money from a city council grant intended to help “transitional-aged foster youth.” Starting last fall, four adult mentors and eight mentees, ages 17-20, met, ate, and talked once a week for 12 weeks. All the mentors were known well and trusted by SCO staff. Everyone had a background check. Mentors and mentees were the same gender. All mentors had either been in care or were otherwise involved with the system.

Every other week, mentors and mentees hung out one-on-one, spending a $40 gift card however they wanted. (The mentors saw their two mentees separately.)
On the alternate weeks, everyone had dinner together in a conference room at SCO. The group agreed to let me and my editor observe their final dinner together, where they talked about how the program was for them. There were two facilitators: Stephen and another SCO worker, Carol.

Sharing Food and Advice

The SCO office in Jamaica, Queens, was nice, with brightly painted walls. Stephen’s office was blue and had puzzles, card games, and coloring books. I spotted a Mr. Potato Head, which I hadn’t seen since I was in foster care seven years ago.

Dinner was eggplant parmesan and lasagna cooked by Carol, and fried chicken. As people ate, everyone started out by answering the question, “What have you been doing to take care of yourself?” At first, I couldn’t tell who was a mentee and who was a young mentor. One girl had passed her English Regents. A boy had stopped smoking marijuana and was reading an inspirational book his mentor had given him. One girl said her self-care was getting her Depo-Provera (birth control) shot.

One young mentor said he hadn’t had any alcohol in 2018 or any meat for the past three weeks. Another young mentor shared that she told her boyfriend of seven years their relationship needs help. She said it was hard to leave the guy: “I’m tired of the relationship, but coming up in foster care, I really have that family picture.” It seemed like the group had discussed her relationship before, and everyone gave her encouragement and advice. The fact that most of the mentors had also been in care connected the group.

Then the group talked about what they’d gotten out of the program. The mentor who wasn’t sure about her boyfriend said she was surprised how much she learned from the mentees. She added, “You all really boosted my confidence.” A mentee said, “I expected a good mentor to enlighten me. But I also got to enlighten other people.”

image by YC-Art Dept

His mentor, who’s 29 now, said, “I aged out at 21 and I’ve always wanted to give back to the youth. I got two great young mentees, and it helps me to help them.” Throughout the dinner, everyone was offering support and advice with everyone else’s problems. The foster youth seemed to get a lot out of being listened to and being able to help others.

Into the Future

I wondered if people would stay in touch after the program ended that night. People talked about their plans for the future at dinner. One girl said of her mentor, “I’m going to have her number till I die. She saved my eyebrows, because they were messed up.”

Her mentor said, “I was a young mother, and she’s a young mother. I’m there to hear her rant and rave. It’s good to hear you all’s stories. It’s good we can sit around this table without a fight.” Another mentee said gratefully, “I said some deep sh-t, and none of y’all judged me.”

Then everyone answered the question, “What could the program do better?” Several people suggested more group activities, like working together at a soup kitchen, going bowling, roller skating, or to a museum.

Judging from the group’s final dinner together, the program was a success. It seemed like everyone became more social and comfortable with people who were there to help and listen to them. They made a date to have a reunion in three months.

I would have loved a group like this when I was in care. I was removed from my home so quickly and didn’t get the support I needed to be stable, and I got very depressed. I needed someone to talk to about what I was experiencing and how I felt. I felt isolated in care because I lost everyone I was comfortable with. I missed my mom and my siblings.

I’m 17 now, and things aren’t going great with my mother. My social worker thinks I should sign myself back into care. My worker told me no foster parent wants older kids, so I’m afraid I’d end up in a group home with girls who steal my stuff and fight. I don’t want to feel scared and alone like I did before in care.

I would like some of the benefits of care, though, like money for college and more preparation to live on my own. I would also like a mentor. The SCO program looked so good to me, I think every agency should have a mentor program like theirs, with mentors who know what foster care is like. It’s a better way for former foster kids and current ones to connect and bond and share. A good mentor provides a helping hand and someone to talk to. A good mentor gives a foster child the love and attention she often doesn’t get from others.

I would also like to be a mentor either when I’m older or even now. I have heard and learned a lot about what people are still going through in care. I could help children deal with issues I went through. What I really liked about the SCO dinner is that the help and advice and caring went two ways. You could tell it felt good for the foster children to support their mentors and not just vice versa. I think every foster child deserves a relationship like that.

Stephen Hanmer said he will incorporate everyone’s suggestions for the next time SCO hosts the program, this spring. Many of the mentors are returning, and the program’s success has attracted new ones. Any agency could use this model of inviting young adults who’ve aged out successfully to mentor youth in care.

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