Young people who have aged out of foster care at age 18 face many challenges, from graduating college to finding a stable living situation, without the support of a loving family. But the Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Our House is hoping to change that narrative for young people ages 14-25 in Washtenaw County.
"Unfortunately, there are not a lot of safety nets," says Our House executive director Natasha Doan-Motsinger. "There are some funding streams, and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) does case management up to age 20 if necessary. But at 18, they're (mostly) on their own, and that often leads to homelessness, incarceration, lack of graduation, and poverty."
Doan-Motsinger says she understands the difficulties these former foster care charges face when she thinks about her own 21-year-old daughter, who still craves parental support from time to time.
"I talk to her at least twice a week about something specific she needs my advice on, like signing a lease or writing a resume or picking an outfit for an interview," Doan-Motsinger says. "As her parent, I fill in the gaps on things like how to cook and take care of herself. But with the folks we're working with, they have not had the opportunity to learn those skills, nor do they have someone they can turn to for that kind of five-minute conversation to make sure you're going in the right direction."
Our House began in 2012 as a volunteer effort, co-founded by Cheri Dunn and Christopher Ekpiken, who are both on the current Our House board of directors. They were involved in the Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program, a now-defunct Washtenaw County program for foster children and their families, and wanted to develop a nonprofit focused on the same population.
After five years of helping young people on a volunteer basis, a grant from University of Michigan Health System Community Health Services helped Our House create four part-time paid positions, including Doan-Motsinger's.
Our House offers a variety of support services, including life skills training and a supportive residence called The Launch Pad, but building mentor-mentee relationships is at the heart of the nonprofit's mission. Doan-Motsinger says the organization has connected 100 youth with mentors, and is currently providing mentors to a cohort of 28 youth.
"A lot of other programs provide (practical) supports, but at its foundation, mentoring is the most important piece," Doan-Motsinger says.
Our House finds youth to work with from a variety of referral sources, including DHHS, Washtenaw Community College (WCC), and local nonprofit Ozone House. Some young people inquire on their own behalf or refer a friend who has had an experience with the foster care system.
Our House staff interview referred youth to get to know them, their interests, and their goals. Then staff can connect the young person to a mentor who has committed to meeting with the mentee at least two times a month for a monthly total of six to eight hours.
"We do our best to match them based on shared interests or goals, but sometimes we just have a gut feeling they'll get along and complement each other," Doan-Motsinger says. "Sometimes we've seen some messy but magical matches happen with people we wouldn't necessarily have expected to do so well together."
She says the two biggest needs are always housing and mental health services. The fact that Washtenaw County has some of the highest housing costs in the state contributes to the high level of homelessness among young people transitioning out of foster care.
They could move to an area with cheaper housing, but Doan-Motsinger says many of them want to stay here because they have friends or family connections or are attending Eastern Michigan University or WCC.
Our House may help those young people with housing by offering a $215 monthly rent reimbursement for those who are employed or enrolled in college. Others can take advantage of supportive housing at The Launch Pad, a residence in Ypsilanti that can accommodate up to four youth.
Mack Wegener serves as resident manager at The Launch Pad, which is currently home to three young people.
"Anyone living in the house has two forms of support: me and their mentor," Wegener says. "Anybody who lives there is agreeing to work with the resident manager and complete life skills classes during the month."
Those life skills classes are tailored to individual needs and could range from learning how to clean up a flooded basement to figuring out how to get car insurance or find a primary care physician.
"The point is to have a space to learn skills that maybe peers their age already know, a safe space to figure it out with somebody next to them," Wegener says.
Our House staff will soon add a host home program called Home Connections, made possible by a grant from United Way of Washtenaw County. Program coordinator Emily Clark will lead that effort.
"We're trying to find people who have an extra room in their house and are open to having (a young person) live with them for up to six months," Clark says. "We'll be launching that program sometime in the next three months."
Additionally, Doan-Motsinger hopes to start a support group to build resilience in those who have experienced foster care.
"An increasing focus on mental health is one of our goals for 2020," she says.
Doan-Motsinger says Our House would like to build its network of local employers willing to work with youth they serve, as well as recruiting more mentors, especially men. Mentors have to be at least 25 years old and able to pass a background check.
"All you need is a willingness to get to know someone and a desire to do some good, but also ideally some sort of skill set or interest level someone could connect with," Doan-Motsinger says.
Our House's business operations are currently based at the Chapelle Business Center at 111 S. Wallace Blvd. in Ypsilanti and the Launch Pad program is based in a separate location. But Doan-Motsinger says she'd love for Our House to acquire a space where all the programming can be located under one roof.
"These young people get out at 18 and are often starting from scratch, without a job," she says. "They might have some funding to go to college but don't know how to navigate parking or haven't done their own laundry or learned to cook for themselves. I'd love to have a space that allows us to give a sense of family and the support they need."
More information about Our House and its mission is available at OurHouseMi.org.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com. All photos by Doug Coombe.