Chances are your son or daughter plays with a foster care child in school without even realizing it. They may simply interact on the playground, or participate on a sports team together, or even be classroom friends, but their home lives are severely different. That’s why every parent and child should visit the Aging Out of Foster Care photo exhibit at the Long Island Children’s Museum. The struggles and triumphs of 16 heartrending stories come to life in a manner that children can easily grasp.
Take Alex Lonzot. Three years ago Alex spent Christmas Day alone in his room at Leake and Watts Residential Treatment Center in Yonkers, New York. He had lived there since he was 14 and had been shuffled through foster homes since the age of 7. In another week Alex would turn 21, the age limit for living in the residential center. The challenges that lay ahead frightened him, for he was about to age out of New York State’s foster care system.
Alex did not have a college education. Nor did he have any job experience. He did not know how to draft a resume or how to conduct himself properly during an interview. But even worse, he did not have a parent or family member to guide him. Worried about his financial prospects, he packed his meager possessions—a bed quilt, a pillow, and some clothing—into a black garbage bag and followed his social worker to an apartment in the Bronx. Alex had no money in the bank and no cash in his pockets. Thrust into an economy already saturated with a high unemployment rate, Alex knew that his chances of earning a decent salary were just as bleak as his subsidized studio, furnished only with a table, two chairs, and a bed.
The Center for an Urban Future states that nearly 1,000 young adults age out of New York City’s foster care program every year. Half of these discharges are unable to find jobs, which means that 500 young adults are stranded with no means to support themselves. Without parental support or guidance, the risk of incarceration, homelessness, or need for public assistance is almost inevitable. A number of state agencies offer assistance, but many of these 18- to 21-year-old discharges do not have the developmental maturity essential for the transition to independence even with assistance.
The organization You Gotta Believe, based in Coney Island, Brooklyn, operates on the premise that these young adults require the unwavering and unconditional love that only a parent can provide. Anything less than this permanency for a foster care discharge will most likely lead to homelessness. YGB mentors work to place foster teens in permanent homes before they age out of the system. The process can take years, but for teens like Alex, the outcome is worth the wait.
Alex met Mary Keane, an off-site mentor affiliated with You Gotta Believe, at Leake and Watts when he was 15. She asked him if he was interested in being adopted. Alex says that he was a wise guy back then and at first was not receptive to the idea. After all, he had had a bad experience with his abusive foster mother, and ran away from her when he was only 10. Yet Alex confessed that he longed for a father, since he had never met his own. Mary encouraged Alex to attend a meeting at YGB for teens seeking to be adopted. So Alex participated on a few panels with other foster care teenagers. Six years later, four months after aging out of foster care, Alex found a loving father and family. But it took courage and patience.
Elijah Nealy had heard Alex talk about his foster care experience on YGB’s radio broadcast in December 2008. Touched by Alex’s story, he decided to undergo a 30-hour parental training session offered by YGB. Elijah eventually met Alex at one of the panels, where he shared his personal struggles along with two other foster care teens. Elijah invited Alex out for a hamburger, accompanied by Mary. The two hit it off, and Elijah paid Alex another visit at his studio in the Bronx. The following week, on the day of Elijah’s birthday barbecue, Alex moved into Elijah’s Brooklyn home. Today they are close buddies, both claiming that they were meant to find each other.
Before Alex met Elijah, playing by the rules meant he’d go hungry. He had tried to apply for food stamps at the nearest welfare office, like his social worker advised, yet after waiting in line for five hours he advanced to the office just as it closed. So Alex earned money the only way he knew how—by selling drugs. Alex had already experienced the dangers of drug dealing before he left the residential facility. He witnessed a fatal gun slaying right in front of him. After a five-hour grilling at the police station over the incident, Alex swore off street dealing. Yet without a job, peddling drugs was his only means of survival. If Alex hadn’t met Elijah, he might have suffered a different fate.
It took Alex 22 years before he was able to enjoy a family Christmas. Unfortunately, other foster care discharges haven’t been so lucky. Every day they struggle to pay for food and rent, and with limited educational opportunities, their employment situations are difficult to improve.
Alex is married now. He proposed to his wife, Caroline, on Elijah Nealy’s wedding day last September. Caroline also went through the New York foster care system. They have a daughter, Harmony, who will turn two this fall. Although the three of them live with the Nealys in their Yonkers home now, Alex is saving for his family to move to their own apartment.
Alex is working as a cook, training to be a pastry chef. He cherishes his family and appreciates the love the Nealys have given him. “At once it was just me, but now my family has expanded so huge that I could never ask for more.”
The show started June 16 and will run until September 2, 2012, seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Long Island Children’s Museum, 11 Davis Avenue, Garden City, New York, 11530; tel. 516-224-5871; licm.org
Thursday July 19th from 1pm-4pm photographers from the SalaamGarageNYC team will be shooting free family group portraits as part of the Everybody Needs Someone, Aging Out of Foster Care Project. Each family will receive a print of their family portrait and a copy will be added to The Community Gallery, where a giant family scrapbook photo album will celebrate the Long Island Children’s Museum community families through September 2.