In America there are over 400,000 children in foster care. 23,000 of those children will age out of care. Children who age out of foster care — those who leave foster care after turning 18 without having been adopted — face many unknowns. 50 percent will become homeless, 7 out of 10 girls will become pregnant, 1 out of 2 will develop a substance abuse dependency, 25 percent won’t graduate from high school, 50 percent will be unemployed, and 60 percent of boys will be convicted of a crime.
The lack of support and guidance is often the problem for many of these youths, but fortunately for the Toledo area, there is an organization helping these young adults avoid becoming a statistic: The Ohana Project.
Dependence to independence
The Ohana Project is an amazing organization run by Ashley and Mark Mills, who say it “works with aging youth to transition from dependence to independence.” The couple focuses on educating the youth involved in their program on life skills such as building credit, navigating finances and maintaining employment.
When a youth ages out of foster care, the government provides them with some benefits and support, such as help with rent, food and education. However, even with those benefits, the Mills realized something more was missing. “We felt it was time to give these young adults guidance to navigate [adulthood], additional assistance where needed, advice, hands-on skills, and a forever family they may always call upon,” says Ashley.
The additional assistance and guidance comes directly from The Ohana Project, as well as the community partners the organization works with. Partners in the community have helped provide the youths with jobs and acted as mentors for the young adults. Helping the young adults find employment is often the first step Ashley and Mark take. Then, after the youth obtains a job, the couple works to help them find transportation.
At first the transportation often comes directly from Ashley and Mark, who have been known to pick up and drive the youths to work each day, but with the help of the community, grants, and discounts with car dealerships such as Steve Taylor, the young adults are often able to afford a downpayment on their first car while also keeping some money in their savings account.
A forever family
Along with the assistance in housing, employment, and transportation, Ashley and Mark also become family to these young adults. In a phone interview, Mark explained that a lot of these youths are very behind where other young adults their age would be. While the foster care system does offer a voluntary program called Bridges, which offers young adults
monthly meetings with representatives providing guidance, those once-a-month meetings are often not enough. So The Ohana Project provides daily guidance. Ashley and Mark take on somewhat of a parental role for these young adults as they lead them through the tribulations of early adulthood.
And it is those parent-child interactions that really seem to be so rewarding, not just for the youth, but for Ashley and Mark as well. Mark shared a story of one of the youths in The Ohana Project who was in a car accident recently.
Most teens would call their parents right away because getting in a car accident is scary, and they don’t always know what to do at that age. Mark said it was late at night and he was outside talking with Ashley. He didn’t hear his phone, and his daughter spotted it ringing and brought it outside to him. It was one of his young adults from The Ohana Project. Mark went to go pick him up, and, after getting him home and taking care of the immediate needs after the accident, Mark was looking through some of his missed text
messages. He had gotten many messages from the young man right after the accident, and one of those messages included the phrase “I need you.”
Mark explained, “You become the one they depend on in those situations.” Fortunately for the young adults in The Ohana Project, they have some wonderful people they can rely on. From late night phone calls to early morning pick-ups, The Ohana Project provides the help and care these young adults need. And that help and care doesn’t stop at any certain age. “Our time with them is never-ending,” added Ashley.
Anyone interested in becoming involved with The Ohana Project can learn more by visiting theohanaproject.org or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.