Friends of Children: “These are the stories we celebrate”

When a young person “ages out” of the foster care system at age 18, family and community connections are scarce. For youth in Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties, mentors from Friends of Children often fill the void.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, one mentor and her mentee cooked the same recipe in each other’s respective kitchens and ate dinner “together”—all while on Zoom.

“The mentors are anchors,” said the agency’s executive director, Jane Lyons. “They keep young people grounded, reach out, spend time, and coach them to make good decisions.”

Hadley-based Friends of Children works to improve the lives of children and young people who are at-risk of entering foster care or are already in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems and have aged out. Volunteer mentors, carefully selected and trained, are crucial supports.

When COVID-19 struck, thousands of Massachusetts parents picked up their college students and brought them home. But for many young people from the foster system, no one came for them after college dorms closed. Suddenly, many had nowhere to live. Other former foster kids were among those who lost jobs.

“Housing issues, food insecurity, anxiety and isolation came roaring back,” said Lyons. These experiences and feelings, she noted, were familiar to youth who had been in the foster care system.

With a grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley, Friends of Children did a quick survey of its youths’ basic needs. Were they safe? Did they have a place to live? Food? Did they understand how to file for SNAP or unemployment benefits? Could they grocery shop? The agency and its mentors jumped in to fill needs. From there, they provided “wellness kits”—thermometers, masks, sanitizers, and grocery gift cards. Mentoring is ongoing.

Lyons described another young woman, aged out of foster care, who was homeless. She split time between hotel rooms or at the homes of various friends, which were often unsafe or unsavory due to drug activity. Her mentor reached out to her daily, even at midnight if needed, to coach her mentee through different situations. With the support of her mentor, she got safe and stable housing and now has a part-time job.

“She is so proud,” said Lyons. “The investment during COVID paid dividends. She moves into her first independent apartment next week. These are the stories we celebrate.”

Photo by Tori Wise on Unsplash