"When we think about adoption, we rarely think of older children."Susan PunnettDirectorFamily & Youth Iniative
Imagine you’re 18-years-old and you have no one.
Suddenly responsible for your own housing, health care and life decisions, you are completely overwhelmed, with no one there to guide you through this transition to adulthood — no parents or caring adults invested in your future or committed to helping you navigate the ups and downs of making it on your own.
For many of the 20,000 teens who age out of foster care each year, this is the reality they face.
Among the 300 foster teens awaiting adoption in DC, 100 are teens age 13 and older.
“It’s very hard for any child to be in foster care. It’s even harder for a teenager,” explains Susan Punnett, Director of Family & Youth Initiative. Teens who age out of foster care without a support system face incredible challenges.
As Susan describes it, “The odds are stacked against them. There is high incidence of young people who age out and experience homelessness, who are under-employed or unemployed, who don’t finish high school, or who have high involvement in the criminal justice system.”
The social cost for youth aging out of foster care is estimated at $300,000 per person.
Yet, research shows that having just one caring, committed adult in the life of a child in foster care can make the difference between struggle and success.
Family & Youth Initiative was founded for this purpose – to help teens in care find those adults. At its core, DCFYI is simply this: A caring community of adults and youth who believe in the importance of family.
When Dayar first asked Leah to be his mentor, she was surprised. “You don’t need a mentor. You have like 90,000 mentors,” she jokes. Dayar makes friends wherever he goes. His easy-going nature, welcoming smile and good-natured style of banter make it easy to see why. But for Dayar, this was about taking a more active role in his future.
“When you’re in foster care, they never ask you questions like what are your hobbies? What are your values?”
He first met Leah at a DCFYI event, and they chatted about cooking and discussed their favorite shows on the food network. Leah didn’t expect the friendship to develop so naturally. “I thought [foster teens] would be cynical, jaded or hostile. But once they see you are going to come back, they are quite warm and loving.”
Dayar remembers Leah’s help as he considered a transition from studying business administration to culinary school. She helped him navigate the decision and look for an internship.
“At this time, I hadn’t imagined being adopted. I didn’t expect it… Adoption was always my goal, but I no longer thought about it.”
“I had never thought of adoption. There are all these pre-conceptions, like you have to be married and you have to be rich,” explains Leah. She was neither, but she was a caring adult, with interests and passions, a zest for life, and a desire to invest in someone else in a deep and meaningful way.
When she first met Dayar, she was simply a friend, then a mentor, but two years later she had come to love him like her own child. She recalls the day he left for college at Penn State: “We hugged goodbye, I gave him a care package, and I cried my eyes out. I called my mom and asked ‘How did you do this?’”
Leah’s plan never included adoption, but life took an unexpected turn, and Leah found herself quite certain that she wanted to adopt Dayar. “I remember exactly where I was at that moment – driving down Mass Ave, heading south. A big smile came on my face, and I knew it. This is what I’m going to do.”
For Dayar, the decision was more complicated. While away at college, he grappled with the challenges and questions accompanying a complex family situation. “I had a lot of tests due, and I wanted to call my mom. But I had like six moms, and I thought, who am I going to call?”
It wasn’t until later that the answer to this question came. It arrived in the form of a curly-haired woman in a hospital room. It was Leah. “While away at school, I got sick, and she came to be with me in the hospital, and it hit me then that this was mom. I called my biological mom and asked her about adoption. She replied, 'Whatever makes you happy would make me happy.'"
Leah remembers that day vividly. “I was sitting with my mom and got a text saying I could tell my family about the adoption. I teared up as I held the phone out to my mom, showing her the text.”
Dayar describes one of his most recent culinary masterpieces: Butternut saffron risotto and roasted chicken served alongside brussel sprouts with a balsamic reduction and shortbread with apple ginger compote for dessert. He loves to be in the kitchen – a place where he is free to create.
“I don’t write recipes, so I can’t ever make the same thing twice.”
Dayar is as driven as he is creative. “No one in my family has gone to college, but I’m in school. I will finish school and I know I’ll be able to take care of myself.”
This is no small statement for a young man who spent the majority of his life navigating the challenges of foster care. On his first day of class, Dayar found himself completely overwhelmed by the demands. He remembers being handed a syllabus.
“I didn’t even know what it was. Then, the professor starts telling us we have to read a couple hundred pages. After my first two classes, I had decided college wasn’t for me and planned to drop out.”
At the time, Dayar was connected with a host family through DCFYI. When he informed them of his plans, they immediately asked about his Plan B.
“Shoot, I don’t have a Plan B.”
The host parents responded, “Well I guess you’re staying in school then.”
“I guess so.”
The stress and pressures of college can be daunting for anyone, but even more so for someone who is navigating the road without support.
“It was really them pushing me that kept me in school initially. They told me ‘You’re capable, you’re able.’ I was overwhelmed, but it turned out I was more prepared than I realized.”
Dayar’s determination earned him an associates degree in Culinary Arts and entrance into the Hospitality Management program at Penn State, currently ranked as one of the top five programs in the country.
“I guess you could call me a professional student,” Dayar quips with a warm smile.
He loves to learn and is pursuing a career as the food and beverage manager for a hotel, while also dreaming of one day traveling and living abroad, perhaps in London or Australia.
Food brought Leah and Dayar together four years ago and continues to be a bond they share. “I’m the sous chef, and he’s the chef,” explains Leah.
She recalls her most recent birthday dinner, “Herbed chicken with a crispy skin, new potatoes with rosemary, asparagus in a buerre blanc. Oh, and a molten chocolate cupcake with raspberry sauce. I love anything chocolate.”
Dayar teases her, “Every time I cook something, she says, ‘This is the best one yet.’ But then the next time, it’s ‘No, THIS is the best one yet.’”
Their shared interest in cooking is reflective of the DCFYI process.
“I wanted to find someone with common ground. I wanted to come on mutual terms where I know them, and they know me,” says Leah. And this is exactly how it happened. Before he called her mom, Dayar simply called Leah for advice. Through their mentorship, they saw each other’s best and worst.
They laugh about the time she arrived to help Dayar move; with a room full of belongings, he had only a single box packed and ready. She pasted a smile on her face as she patiently helped him pack everything else.
“You get moments like that – real moments – where you see how people handle it when you are in need. You see the good and the bad and know what kind of a family you are getting into,” reflects Dayar.
A Natural Connection
“I was on the steps, and he came over and asked me a question. We started having a conversation. That was the beginning of our friendship.” Robert learned about DCFYI through the group home he was living in at the time. His involvement began with a simple desire for diversion.
“I just wanted to do something, wanted to get out of the house. It was fun to do something different. There were other kids there, and we had something in common.”
But Robert also met Brian Levy.
“I would describe him as a nerd – a funny nerd – who has a kind heart and cares about the world. He really does care about people. He loves to plant and grow things in his garden. He’s very creative and out of the box. He has his own mini house. He turned a garage into his own mini house.”
Robert and Brian talked at several events when Director Susan Punnett noticed the natural connection and helped facilitate a mentoring relationship between the two of them. But for Robert, the opportunity was still more about getting out of the house.
“When we first started hanging together, it was kind of weird because I didn’t really know who he was. I just wanted to go out to eat or something, but not because I wanted to get to know him. But then it became more of a friendship…we talked about family and school. I asked him questions. It became more personal.”
They share an appreciation for the arts and have attended shows and musicals together. But most often, you will find them at their preferred local coffee shop and eatery, Busboys and Poets.
Now, six years later, the two still meet up at this favorite spot to talk.
Robert describes the impact Brian has had on his life: “I learned to be productive. I learned to be more vocal – to speak out for things I believe in, advocating for myself and others.”
But perhaps the most profound outcome has been on Robert’s education. “Brian helped me get into Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I wouldn’t have applied if it weren’t for him. That changed my life. He pushed me to do it. He helped with everything. He helped me with my homework, took me to shows across town, took me to my audition.”
As Robert describes it, his acceptance to Duke Ellington High School forever altered the trajectory of his life. It was there he discovered a love for dance. “Ballet, hip hop, African, jazz, modern – I like all kinds of dance. As long as I can move, they are all my favorite.”
After graduation, he went on to Norfolk State University, where he is currently pursuing a degree in Kinesiotherapy.
“I plan to graduate, then I want to be a physical therapist for professional athletes and dancers. But first, I want to go to grad school at Alabama State University. They have a good program there.”
And as Robert explains, he wouldn’t be where he is without Brian.
“Every morning on the weekends or after school, he would help me. He helped me with college applications, figuring out my major, and even the application fees.”
Though Robert hasn’t always wanted to hear what his mentor had to say. “There are a lot of times like that,” he explains. Brian pushes him to do more, to work towards his potential, to stay on track and accomplish his goals.
One example? Robert remembers working on his financial aid application. “I kept saying I had everything together. I had things under control, but really I didn’t.” Brian came alongside and helped him navigate those waters, ensuring he would have access to financial assistance.
These are the kinds of challenges that can be overwhelming to any teenager, but even more so for someone without a support system to guide them through the process.
Through the Family and Youth Initiative, Robert found that support system. He still goes back to visit Ms. Susan and others at the program, and gets together with Brian anytime he returns home.
Building a Village
Community means different things to different people.
For Robert, community arrived in the form of Ms. Susan, a group of other foster teens, and a kind-hearted mentor named Brian. This support network has meant the difference between aging out of foster care without direction or purpose and graduating from a prestigious art school to attend college, with plans to pursue an advanced degree and hopes for a future career in physical therapy.
For Dayar, community looks like dozens of caring friends, mentors, encouraging host parents, loving foster parents, biological family, and now, an adoptive mom. These relationships have helped instill in him the confidence to excel in school, continue his education and pursue a career in the hospitality industry.
Though we rarely think of teens when it comes to adoption, those in foster care are among the kids who stand to benefit most from an adoptive family and support network. Older teens are in a unique place as they prepare to transition into adulthood.
If you are interested in venturing into this landscape of life change, attend a DCFYI picnic and make a friend. If that friendship develops, maybe consider becoming a mentor. Or, get started slowly by volunteering at an event to see where you fit in.
Alternatively, consider opening your home to a foster teen on the weekend as a host parent and become an encouraging voice in their life. Looking for even more engagement? Adopt a teen and fulfill a lifelong dream for family, stability, support and belonging.
There are opportunities for every level of interest and involvement. However you choose to engage, one thing will be true: You will be given the chance to make a difference. To invest in a teen's life, and to be changed by their return investment in yours.
I would like to extend a huge thank you to YOU, our readers, for the opportunity to tell this story! The Family & Youth Initiative was nominated and selected through our Reader's Choice process.
Our annual Reader's Choice issue has quickly become one of my favorites. I love learning about new organizations by engaging our network, and it has been an incredible opportunity to feature DCFYI -- a truly unique and much-needed organization right here in our own backyard.
I also want to thank Susan, Leah, Dayar, Brian and Robert for sharing so openly about their experiences. Their personal stories brought this issue to life, and their lives are an inspiration.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly