Mentor Me: Cincinnati Works service aims to help young adults aging out of foster care

'We want to empower them'

CINCINNATI – These days, Destiney Larkin is a well-dressed 21-year-old with a full-time job, her own apartment and a car.

But not long ago, she was struggling. She had spent years in and out of foster care, with social workers drifting in and out of her life. She graduated from high school but left Shawnee State University during her freshman year, unhappy with her roommate and her college experience.

“I pretty much was becoming a couch potato,” she said. “I didn’t really want to do anything.”

That changed when Larkin met Susan Brewer, a retired saleswoman on a mission to change the life of a young adult aging out of the foster care system.

Brewer had trained with the local nonprofit ProKids to become a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, for a foster child. But she was living in two different cities at the time and realized she wouldn’t be able to take on that role.

Instead, Brewer, an alumna of Chi Omega, convinced the sorority to fund her efforts to mentor Larkin.

Their relationship blossomed into Mentor Me , a program founded by Brewer and Jody Canupp to match young adults aging out of foster care with mentors to help them navigate the choppy waters of self-sufficiency. The idea was that few young adults are ready at age 18 – when most leave Ohio's child welfare system – to become independent without the steady presence of someone who cares about them and their future. Mentor Me became a service of Cincinnati Works , the downtown-based nonprofit, in 2013. Brewer serves as Mentor Me’s coordinator, and Canupp, who also owns Hamilton-based Jojo’s Cupcakes and More, is team supervisor. Both work as volunteers.

“We connect them with any resource they need, and we act as a Band-Aid if there is no resource,” Canupp said. “The funds are allocated based on need."

Being part of Cincinnati Works has made the program more successful at connecting the young adults it serves with good, stable jobs they can keep, Brewer added. The nonprofit call center Education At Work is among the employers that have hired Mentor Me participants.

"We as a community just need to do a better job of supporting folks that in many cases are coming from families that are not in good circumstances," said Dave Dougherty, Education At Work founder and CEO. "We need to get more of those folks with the skills they need and the education they need to be successful in the workplace."

Photo: Susan Brewer, co-founder of Mentor Me, started the program when working with Destiney Larkin, a young woman who had aged out of the foster care system. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Staggering Needs For Vulnerable Youth

That success doesn't come easily.

The needs of young adults aging out of foster care can be staggering. Sometimes they need money for rent, food or work-appropriate clothing. Other times they need help with cell phone bills, transportation to get to work or furnishings for their first apartments.

“The mentor works with them to get them to self-sufficiency,” Brewer said. “We do not want to enable anyone. We want to empower them.”

Such young adults are particularly vulnerable.

A comprehensive study conducted in 2007 by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago found that:

• Nearly one-quarter of young adults aging out of foster care did not have a high school diploma or GED by the age of 21.

• About half were unemployed at that age.

• More than 70 percent of the young women in the study reported having been pregnant by 21, with most having been pregnant more than once.

• And 77 percent of the young men in the study had been arrested by the age of 21.

Brewer learned about all those statistics as part of her CASA training. She and Canupp were committed to making sure Larkin didn’t follow that same path.

Pushing For Results

It wasn’t easy. Brewer and Canupp were just forming their philosophy for Mentor Me, and Larkin was the test case.

They had physical exercise “boot camps” that started before sunrise a couple days a week and required Larkin to do community service, too.

When Brewer instructed Larkin to read a book, though, the young woman decided that was her limit. Larkin called a meeting of Brewer, Canupp, her social worker and Cindy Walp, her CASA who had been in communication with Brewer and Canupp all along.

Larkin told the group that she was overwhelmed and was being pushed too hard. Then the other adults around the table spoke one at a time, and each of them had a criticism of Larkin to share.

“Everybody went around, and everything went on me,” Larkin said. “I figured if everybody’s saying the same thing about me, maybe it’s something I need to fix.”

There were stops and starts and failures along the way. After getting and losing two jobs and stumbling a time or two, Larkin finally used all the advice she had gotten from Brewer, Canupp and Walp to get a job at General Revenue Corp., a student loan collection agency in Mason. She’s had the job nearly 18 months.

Larkin works with borrowers to help them get current on their payments and has thrived

in the role, said Tabitha Chaney, Larkin’s direct supervisor.

“Destiney is definitely a role model on our team,” Chaney said. “She helps me train other representatives, and she’s very outgoing. She does her job very well.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround for Larkin, who acknowledged she fought Brewer’s advice before eventually realizing her mentor truly cared about her.

“What we loved about Destiney is that she had this amazing energy,” Brewer said. “And she’d use so much energy to fight us all off. I told her she was going to be incredibly successful once she took that energy and directed it to the right area.”

‘Special Breed Of Cat’

Mentor Me now has about 20 young adults in its program, which Brewer said is open to youth who have aged out of the foster care system no matter what kind of trouble they have had in the past.

Those years right after a child turns 18 can be a particularly difficult time to reach the young adults who so desperately need the help, said Bob Mecum, the longtime CEO of Lighthouse Youth Services.

“By the time many of these young people age out of the child welfare system, they are ready to take a break from more helpers,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing. It’s very natural.”

Any relationships the young adults have maintained tend to be “transactional” in nature, Mecum said. Often the prevailing attitude is, “If you can get this for me, we’re good. If you can’t, we’re not so good,” he said.

Any mentor should expect those reactions based on the young adult’s past experiences, Mecum said, and should be prepared for it to take a while before a trusting relationship can be forged.

“Any group of mentors working with young people that age really are a special breed of cat,” Mecum said. “And God love them.”

Homeless And Alone

Wayne Dorsey is one of those mentors. The owner of Meditation Gardens in Anderson Township, Dorsey was inspired to get involved with Mentor Me in honor of his nephew who died suddenly two years ago at the age of 17.

“I realized in a way I felt it was mine to do,” he said. “It filled that part of me that still grieves for my nephew.”

Dorsey mentors Timothy Rylance, who was born in Ohio but grew up in South Carolina.

Rylance entered the foster care system there when he was 10 and aged out at 18. His father had died and left him some money, which Rylance used to move to Nashville and, eventually, to Cincinnati.

Rylance managed on his own for a while, getting a job to gather signatures for petitions and living in his own apartment. But when the job ended, his money dried up, and Rylance ended up homeless.

He stayed at the Lighthouse Sheakley Center for Youth homeless shelter for a while before getting help from the Freestore Foodbank to get an apartment in May.

“I’m slowly getting back on my feet,” said Rylance, now 23.

Part of that process has been building a relationship with Dorsey.

“It’s good to have someone say that they’ll be supportive of me and who I am,” said Rylance, who said his struggles have been magnified because he is gay. “It’s good to have a mentor that’s supportive.”

Dorsey said he doesn’t expect Rylance to heed all his advice, but he hopes the young man believes his mentor is there for him.

“I think he knows I’m always honest with him. I don’t try to blow smoke up his ego,” Dorsey said. “I wish him a great, happy, successful, fulfilled life, whatever that looks like to him. Whether he wants to sell pencils on the street or be the next Donald Trump or Steve Jobs.”

Photo: Wayne Dorsey mentors 23-year-old Timothy Rylance through the Mentor Me program. Dorsey sometimes takes Rylance to Eden Park to walk around and talk. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

‘They’ve Been Hurt So Much’

Steven Easley understands – probably better than any other volunteer mentor with Mentor Me – what the young adults in the program are going through.

Easley was in foster care before he was even 1 year old, living with various families in Cincinnati and Upstate New York for years before his father’s second wife became his legal guardian.

By the time he was 14, though, he was on his own in New York, living with friends and girlfriends and making his own decisions without the benefit of a parent or mentor.

He joined the Army when he was just 17. He showed up at college thinking he was there for a short visit only to find out that classes started the next day.

“I showed up without any clothes that would last more than two days,” said Easley, who owns Easley Blessed Media, a local photography company.

Now he’s volunteering with Mentor Me, mentoring a 19-year-old who didn’t want to be interviewed for this story.

The young man he's mentoring is smart, Easley said. He graduated from high school and took some college courses. He’s working for Dorsey’s landscaping company and trying to figure out what he wants to do next.

Easley still is working to gain the young man’s trust, and he understands why.

“I think it helps to know that I was once in his shoes,” he said. “Trust is definitely something you earn. And with these kids, it’s even harder

because they’ve been hurt so much.”

A Personal Role

D.J. Carnes knows about hurt.

Carnes was taken from his mother when his mom was only 15, and he was about 3. He lived with his grandparents until he was 12 and a half and then lived in an orphanage before moving through a series of foster home placements and group homes.

Now 20, Carnes is easing out of the child welfare system and lives in his own apartment in a group home in Avondale.

Cindy Walp, who met Brewer when she was Larkin’s CASA, has been mentoring Carnes through Mentor Me for about a year.

“We go shopping. We cook together. We go job-hunting,” Carnes said. “We talk about college. Work. Just about everything.”

Photo: D.J. Carnes, 20, is easing out of the foster care system with the help of his mentor Cindy Walp of Mentor Me. The pair often shops for groceries together to help Carnes learn more about nutrition and cooking. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Being a mentor is very different from being a court appointed special advocate, Walp said. As a CASA, Walp had access to all Larkin’s files and knew her complete history.

With Carnes, Walp has had to learn about him as he’s felt comfortable revealing information.

“A CASA is supposed to be somebody you’re not going to miss when they emancipate,” Walp said. “But as a mentor, it’s a much more personal role in supporting that child – physically and emotionally.”

The most challenging part of that role has been prioritizing what Carnes needs most, Walp said, whether that’s help buying groceries, budgeting or dealing with bed bugs.

Carnes has a ways to go before he's self-sufficient and said he’s grateful Walp and Mentor Me are there for him. He can tell Walp cares, he said, and he trusts her. That feels good after spending the last eight years moving around more times than he can remember.

“It feels,” Carnes said, “like a gift from God.”

For more information about Mentor Me, click here or go to cincinnatiworks.org and look for Mentor Me under “Services.”

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

Photography by Emily Maxwell, WCPO photojournalist. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyWCPO.

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