ORPHAN FOUNDATION OF AMERICA
What happens to foster children who have never been adopted when they turn 18? They have no families that can provide support, and government assistance generally ends-and a high school diploma is no longer enough education for most people to earn a decent living. The Orphan Foundation of America (OFA) helps foster teens achieve self-sufficiency through vocational or higher education and mentoring.
“Foster teens age out of the system at age 18,” said Eileen McCaffrey, executive director of OFA. “We help young people who are aging out of the system and help them go to college, community college, or vocational school.”
“In 1981, the late Joseph Rivers, a former foster youth from the Syracuse area, started the Orphan Foundation of America,” says OFAs website. “His goal was simple-help orphans and foster youth as they transition from foster care to young adulthood, with particular emphasis on helping these young men and women attend college and vocational school.”
In addition to providing money, OFA provides mentors to young people, but only online through e-mail. “The young person and the mentor e-mail each other back and forth. Its a way to keep mentors,” said McCaffrey. “It takes less time. Its also a safe way to develop a relationship. . . . The reason mentoring programs usually fail is that the mentor needs almost as much work as the mentee.” Right now, she said, OFA “has 350 students receiving scholarship support and they all have mentors. It shouldnt be a social worker talking to the kid. It should be someone who does something. . . . So if someone wants to be an engineer, we put them with a mentor who is an engineer.”
Says OFA, which does not take government funds: “Mentors receive pre-service and ongoing training and support as they work with their student on issues such as goal planning, strategies for being successful in school and the workplace, course selection and career guidance. Mentors are recruited from all walks of life; they are tradesmen, artisans, homemakers, entrepreneurs, and professionals. Currently we have a particular need for African-American and Latino men.”
McCaffrey said that boys could use more male role models in the system. “Most people who volunteer in this country are white women,” she said. “We need more men and minorities.”
She said that the young people do not mind not meeting with their mentors personally. “Lots of adults have promised them things” and not delivered, she said. “They dont want to get close to someone quickly. . . . These are young people who are not good at relationships.”
McCaffrey said that about 25,000 teenagers “age out” of the foster system annually. The number of foster children is swollen, she said, by those who still have incompetent but legal parents and thus are ineligible for adoption. “We need to terminate parental rights earlier,” she said. And many kids get sent where it is convenient. “There are more beds in the juvenile system than in the foster system, and so kids-particularly boys-get sent to the juvenile system for things that will get my son grounded,” she said.
“OFAs Mentor Program uses technology to match screened, trained, caring adult volunteer mentors with foster youth,” the foundation says. “Young people ages 16-22 are enrolled in the program because they are receiving a post-secondary scholarship through OFA or because they are in an independent living program that is partnering with OFA to provide a mentoring component for their youth. Mentors make a one- to two-year commitment to the program.”
OFAs scholarships are not aimed at top achievers, those who can earn merit scholarships from other sources. “What we look for are realistic goals,” said McCaffrey. “Theyre not eligible for merit scholarships. Theyre not the 4.0s. Theyre the 2.2s.” OFA does not believe in the notion, often implicit in discussions about career planning, that everyone has to become a professional or business owner in order to succeed in life. “We love vocational programs,” she said. “If someone wants to be an auto diesel mechanic, send him our way. Kids get kudos for saying they want to be doctors or lawyers, even if they dont have the potential.”
“The Casey Family Scholars Program, which is administered by OFA, provides scholarships of up to $10,000 to young people, under the age of 25, who have spent at least 12 months in foster care and were not subsequently adopted,” says OFA literature. “The scholarships were awarded for the pursuit of post-secondary education, including vocational/technical training, and is renewable each year based on satisfactory progress and financial need.”
OFA may be reached at Tall Oaks Village Center, 12020-D North Shore Dr., Reston, Va. 20190-4977 (571-203-0270; fax: 571-203-0273; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.orphan.org).