It was a normal Sunday. Church. A cup of coffee and the newspaper. A whim to purchase a paper other than our regular. And there it was. The article on Roots & Wings. Somehow, my life would never be the same. I was immediately taken in by the plight of the young adults that age out of the foster care system in New Jersey. Nationally, 12 to 18 months after aging out only:
• 2% obtain a bachelors degree
• 84% become a parent
• 25% are homeless
• 51% are unemployed
• 45% do not complete high school.
They often “couch surf”, sleeping on couches from home to home until they have worn out all welcomes. In fact, four out of ten homeless Americans were once foster children.
More than 10 years ago, Irene de Grandprè, a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer, was working with a boy in the foster care system. As he approached the age of 18, Irene was horrified by the prospects that lied ahead for him. Once reaching 18, the child ages out of the system with little to no state support. They are adults and happy to be no longer part of the system. Yet without the support structure of family, life-skills, money, a job and most importantly a place to stay how can they possibly succeed? Roots & Wings was born. Despite DYFS having made improvements since Irene founded Roots & Wings the support for aged out foster children is still limited. With more than 500,000 foster children in the child welfare system nationwide, approximately 20,000 to 25,000 aging out each year, and more than 465 children aging out every year in New Jersey alone, the system is stressed.
I was voted in as a Board Member. My passion for the cause must have shown as before long I was voted in as President. I joined the organization at a precarious time. Irene had retired and the remaining founding board members, as often happens, were starting to reach their volunteer limits. The board had an almost complete turnover in board members. The new board members and I worked tirelessly to build structure, business processes, and a strong foundation to the organization. I had often put in an excess of 40 hours per week sometimes working through the night while my children slept. Thanks to the continued support of some ex-board members, we succeeded in bringing Roots & Wings into a new phase. We built a web site, ran fundraisers, wrote grants, and hired a Program Director to look after the growth of our precious clients.
Today Roots & Wings stands strong with a newly hired Executive Director and 11 clients that have aged out of foster care. The clients must agree to continue their education, maintain employment, and remain drug-free. In exchange, Roots & Wings provides each client with a place to stay, mentoring, counseling, access to health services and 24/7 support. In the past two years 15 aging out foster youth have been served by Roots & Wings. Of those 15 while in the program:
• 15 have remained drug-free
• 5 have completed high school or high school equivalency
• 10 have attended college or vocational training
• 5 have decreased significant debt
• 5 have acquired a driver’s license
• 8 have developed skills to write resumes
• 10 have developed skills to shop and prepare healthy meals
• 14 have received cognitive, behavioral therapy.
Roots & Wings improves the odds and remains the only program in New Jersey that is committed to providing services to aging out foster youth beyond the age of 21 with the focus on education and self-sufficiency. For further information, please visit their website at www.rootsandwingsnj.org.