By Zengzheng Wang
In 2012, at age 18, Gwen Andrews was about to lose her source of housing, food, and all of the support she had ever known.
Fortunately, Andrews received a referral from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to enter the Home for Little Wanderers’ Young Adult Resource Network (YARN). The program helps youth ages 18-22 with independent living and supports them through vocational training and higher education.
“I’ve been in YARN for three years now. It’s actually pretty fun,” Andrews said. “We will go out to places, concerts, we do activities in groups like hot topics. We do cooking, take naps, and watch TV.”
Not all youths in DCF care are as fortunate. Every year, about 800 youths in Massachusetts age out of foster care, according to a 2008 report by the Task Force on Youth Aging Out titled “Preparing our Kids for Education, Work and Life.” Many of these youth suddenly find themselves facing extreme obstacles and are cut off from any help from the system.
More than one in five of these youth will become homeless, fewer than 3 percent will earn a college degree by age 25, and 71 percent of these young women will be pregnant by age 21, the report noted.
Many of these youths are unprepared for life outside of DCF care, and have no place to turn once they age out, said Erica Nazzaro, YARN’s program director.
“It’s a really tough transition of learning about themselves,” Nazzaro said, “learning about their independence, learning about how to function in the world and learning about their identity and learning how to get a job and keep a job and how to get educated in a healthy way, how to survive and make it in the world on their own.”
Founded in 1865 by 10 Boston area businessmen with a goal to help homeless children left behind by the Civil War, The Home for Little Wanderers is the nation’s oldest child welfare agency. It provides services to keep children safe in their own communities and help families through tough transitions.
“It does a really good job of really supporting the children and their families through many different transitions,” Nazzaro said.
19-year-old Luis Martinez has been in the program since last June. He talked about his experience.
It currently serves more than 7,000 children and youth every year from birth to age 22 through a network of services. In addition, a number of innovative programs provide assistance to youth transitioning from state care to adulthood.
“YARN came about because DCF really wanted to pay attention to the young adults that are aging out and they came up with a plan, an idea, and they put out a proposal to see who could bid on this plan,” Nazzaro said. “…DCF accepted The Home for Little Wanderers bid on working with this age group and support them through the transition.”
Currently the program only gets referrals from DCF. After each young adult is referred to them, the young person is assigned a life coach at YARN.
“A life coach is like a mentor, someone who can be there for them 24/7, be supportive be friendly, not a friend exactly, but a friendly person, a person that is really there for them when they need It.” Nazzaro said.
“We just had couple of our young adults [who] had children, and we go to the hospital to visit them,” Nazzaro said. “They were with them while they were in labor. We go through the whole process with them.”
What separates YARN from other agencies is that it really takes the time to get to know the youths that are in their care, Nazzaro said.
YARN’s life coaches and mentors are especially patient with young adults who are mistrusting of them due to previous negative experiences they may have had with adults or other agencies, Nazzaro said.
“We understand that and we work with them through that,” Nazzaro said. “So we help them learn how to trust and how to relay on an adult and how to have a healthy relationship with an adult.”
Along with DCF mentors and life coaches, YARN also allows young adults to bring familiar faces along with them.
“We do allow our young adults to bring a friend,” Nazzaro said. “They may have a friend like a natural support, someone who’s like a best friend or a cousin or a neighbor or a sister or brother and we embrace them as if they are part of their family, whether it’s blood family or not, because we feel like these young adults need to have a found family.”
While YARN tries to establish as safe environment for their young adults, Nazzaro said there are many things that can bring back previous negative experiences.
“Sometimes noises and sometimes a smell sometimes a behavior by other people around them.” Nazzaro said.All of these things can be triggering, Nazzaro said. “So it’s my job as a clinical coordinator to be sensitive to that and to be aware of that.”
She further explained that “also what I think is hard is the disruptions. It’s being moved in for the foster family and two years later you have to move out,” Nazzaro said. “Or it’s moved in with a foster family; they decided it didn’t work out. Their [biological] children came back in their lives, there’s no room for the foster child, or the foster family had moved so they had to move. All these disruptions, over and over again, not only the living situation but the disruption of the school, the disruption of the community, the disruption of the friends, neighbors, having those disruptions really affects people’s lives.”
Nazzaro noted, “It affects them cognitively and emotionally. It affects everything. That causes young adults to not trust and feel like the world is not a safe place.”
Despite everything YARN does for their kids, many still face many challenges when they have to find a job.
“It’s always hard to take the next step. The economy isn’t that great and it’s really hard to do something that you love,” said Vincent Prezioso, a tutor at YARN from Berklee College of Music. “So it’s hard to find what you want to do when you face being homeless or just not having the best opportunities.”
Despite the bad economy and difficulties these youths face in the real world, Prezioso said YARN give them their best chance to succeed.
“I think it’s really hard to put yourself out there. I mean it’s hard for anyone, and I think it’s even harder because all of the things they have going on,” Prezioso said. “I think YARN does a great job of setting all the kids that are come here with different opportunities, summer programs, resumés. I just helped someone last week with two resumés so it’s more presentable.”
While she may have many challenges in front of her, Andrews said YARN is helping her face them head on.“They just help me with my resume, looking for jobs, help me file taxes and colleges and everything,” Andrews said. “I plan on a having a steady job and a steady house.”