Young people aging out of foster care face greater barriers to adult success, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These barriers include experiencing homelessness, becoming a parent before the age of 21 and facing incarceration.
A Fort Wayne church is helping young people overcome such barriers with a program that gives them the support and tools they need to succeed as adults.
Four years ago, Wallace Butts, senior pastor at Love Church, began laying the foundation for Forever Family, a three-year residential, business and entrepreneurial training program.
Residents are immersed in a “family-style” environment. They’re housed in homes near the church on East Berry Street and spend their days at the church working in one of its business units, which include a daycare, auto repair shop and information technology business.
Over the course of the program, residents learn marketable skills and gain certifications. Upon graduation, the program helps youth find jobs or internships and homes in the community around the church.
“By helping these young people get established and planting them in this community, we believe that will transform this neighborhood and these young people at the same time,” Butts said.
Youth who age out of the foster care system in Indiana qualify for housing programs, job training and placement programs and other assistance.
Butts said Forever Family’s mission is to go a step further by walking with youth as they transition to adulthood.
In addition to helping residents become career ready, the therapeutic environment helps them heal, he said. That means helping them work through what he calls “trigger points” – experiences that bring up feelings or memories of childhood trauma.
For example, Butts said, an individual throws their hat in for a promotion and he or she is in competition with coworkers.
“If they don’t get that job, not only are they disappointed about not getting that job, but it brings up memories of rejection,” he said.
In a real world job environment, if the employee has an outburst or his or her performance begins to suffer, the individual might be fired without a chance to explain what’s going on, Butts said. The Forever Family program is designed to teach individuals job skills as well as strategies for overcoming behaviors.
The program currently serves four young adults. It’s a new initiative, so no residents have graduated yet, Butts said. However, Josh, 21, has been in the program for about two years.
Adopted from Russia as a child, Butts said Josh had a difficult time acclimating to his new family and was placed in foster care. Unfortunately, Butts said, this narrative is not unique. Out of the four residents, two were adopted from abroad and three were previously adopted and ended up in foster care at some point.
For this article, Josh preferred not to use his last name because he is working with his adoptive family to rebuild their relationship. He helps out with several projects around the church, but his focus has been in the church’s IT department. He helps the church refurbish old computers and resell them.
Josh said the program has helped him get to know himself. He said he could have sworn he was an introvert, but he realized that he’s actually an extrovert.
“I’m a huge people person. Relationships are important to me,” he said.
The hardest part of the program has been slowing down and looking inward, he said. He describes the program as helping kids get their lives together “from the inside out.” At first, he was focused on his future plans, but he realized that he had to work on himself in order to achieve those.
“I don’t like looking into myself because that means I have to see the good, bad and ugly. All my life, I’ve gotten used to only seeing one – sadly, usually the ugly,” he said.
“Figuring out how to change stuff – that takes a lot of energy.”
Josh said he’s looking forward to a job in IT, but someday, he would like to return to Russia. He feels called to work with Russian youth, possibly orphans.
Serving youth who have aged out of the foster care system is a departure from Love Church’s former mission which included providing food and clothing distribution. While these meet essential needs, Butts said that these ministries only offered temporary solutions.
“Bread is a Band-Aid. Clothes are a Band-Aid. They’re not helping to change the dynamic. I wanted to do something that was going to affect generations,” he said.
It’s been a tough transition. Support has been slow, Butts said.
“When we drew the line in the sand and said we’re not taking any more food, half of our support dropped off,” he said.
People understand handing out bread, he said, but the church’s new focus is more complex and not a problem that can be solved overnight. However, the church has been holding awareness events each year and people are coming around to the idea, he said.
Butts said the program currently has the capacity to serve six additional young adults. While Forever Family is a Christ-centered program, he said that youth don’t have to be Christian to become residents. Individuals age 16-24 are selected for the voluntary program through an interview process. The program is unable to accept sex offenders or felony offenders.
In a few years as the program becomes more established, Love Church hopes to launch a capital campaign to renovate the church campus. The changes would allow the program to expand to serve up to 50 residents. For more information about the Forever Family program and the ministry’s fundraising efforts, visit www.the-lc.org.