Helping kids in crisis immerse into adulthood
Eric and Kara Gilmore’s lives changed when they watched Meagan ride off in a Greyhound bus the day after her 18th birthday. She was exiting the foster care system with one bag of clothes, one night’s worth of bipolar meds, and a one-way bus ticket to Fort Smith where some biological family members she hadn’t seen in a while lived.
“That was her transition into adulthood,” he said.
The Gilmores had met Meagan when they were house parents in a group home when she was 14. They’d separated and then reconnected shortly before she turned 18. Watching that bus drive off, they believed someone needed to do something. So the Gimores formed Immerse Arkansas in 2010.
For foster children removed from their homes but never adopted, the stage where they age out of the system can be perilous. After lacking a stable home life during childhood, they sometimes face the complexities of early adulthood alone. And then they can get into real trouble.
State programs do help. Foster children ages 14 and older are eligible for transitional youth services to help them plan their adult lives. Teens can stay in extended foster care until their 21st birthday. Funds are available for education, job training and basic necessities during those years.
But as with any government program serving a challenging population, there are gaps, which Immerse Arkansas can help fill.
And since its founding, it has broadened its mission to serve all young people in crisis, not just foster kids, including victims of abuse and sex trafficking.
Staff members like Kaysi Roussel look for kids in crisis – at times finding them on the streets or in youth hangouts. Once a young person gets involved, Immerse’s dropin center in Little Rock, Overcomer Central, or “The OC,” becomes a home base. Clients can get meals, do their laundry, use a computer to build their resume, take a shower, get counseling – or play foosball. If a missing piece of paperwork is preventing one from becoming self-sufficient, staff will help take care of it. The OC has mailboxes because many youth in crisis don’t have a place to receive mail on their own. Life skills classes help them pass a driver’s test and open a checking account. The OC also hosts weekly gatherings to celebrate successes and birthdays.
Among its other services, Immerse provides full-time housing to about 30 young people and trains foster and adoptive families in how to help young people transition to adulthood. It serves about 70 at a time overall. Its budget has grown from less than $30,000 its first year to $1.2 million last year, and its staff now numbers about 15 full-timers plus others. Meanwhile, volunteer mentors provide the adult role models some clients never had.
During an Immerse Arkansas open house event Sept. 12, Gilmore said volunteers are always surprised by how “normal” the young people are. He said they are “just like other teens, other young adults, it’s just they’ve suffered some really hard things.” They need help, but some don’t want it, so there’s a push-pull process of gaining their trust.
The group celebrates progress in terms of both small and big wins. Success stories include people like Anna, who asked me not to use her last name.
The victim of an abusive childhood, she spent her last four years of childhood in behavioral facilities because she chose not to enter a foster home. As she left the system, she moved into an Immerse Arkansas home for young women. The organization provided options and taught her about family. She said when she arrived, she was withdrawn, but, “They made me open up, and they made me feel like I deserved the love and the support.” Now she has a job, an apartment, a car, and she’s raising two children.
Meanwhile, Khalendria Powell, once a homeless runaway, is now working for food and uniform services provider Aramark. She said of Immerse’s staff members, “They fill in the blanks … because I came here with no family, and then they became my family.”
When I asked Gilmore about his organization’s non-success stories, he couldn’t name one. But that’s because of the way he looks at those young people. One who’d been involved with Immerse for years had recently been released from prison and was involved with Immerse again. He’s a success “in the making.”
“I would equate failure with giving up,” Gilmore said.