Help­ing kids in cri­sis im­merse into adult­hood

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - STEVE BRAWNER ••• Steve Brawner is a syn­di­cated colum­nist in Arkansas and for­mer man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of The Saline Courier. Email him at brawn­er­[email protected] Fol­low him on Twit­ter @steve­brawner.

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.

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