Saturday, November 23, 2013

New Day for Foster Kids: No Longer Dumped on the Street When They "Age Out."

A morbid narcissistic mom hands her five kids, aged under a year to six, over to the state of Massachusetts and goes on to the good life of travel and fine restaurants. Here she is all dressed up as she celebrates Christmas without the responsibility of five kids.

Meanwhile her kids live, or we should say survive, in ever changing foster homes of uncaring people who are in it for the money. As each "ages out," turns 18, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services considers them adults and no longer its responsibility.

One after another, they find themselves on the street.

Those five kids were me and my four younger siblings. I've written our story earlier. But for now, read this story -- about a quiet, but breathtaking, revolution in foster care.

It's about foster kids no longer "aging out," no longer dumped on the street, but actually treated as human beings by the state of Massachusetts. It's about the  Massachusetts Network of Foster Care Alumni carrying out its remarkable vision: seeing that all former foster kids are "well-supported and well-connected throughout all phases of life."

I learned of this when, out of the blue, I got an invitation from MassNFCA to attend a Thanksgiving dinner in Worcester for former foster kids. I thought: What's this?

Foster care alumni? State kids now honored guests? Thanksgiving dinner? Free? And at Maxwell Silverman's at Union Station, one of the best eating places in the city? I was skeptical. "My guess is that it's a fund-raiser," I said to my sister Ruby, "or it could be some kind of scam."

She agreed.

But I was curious. So was my sister Ruby. We decided to go. I called our two brothers, Reggie and Victor. Ruby called our sister Marion. All three passed, preferring not to be reminded of those horrendous early days when we were nothing but meal tickets. Ruby and I understood completely.

I called the Director of MassNFCA, Grace Hilliard-Koshinsky, and told her that I, my wife Barbara, and my sister Ruby would be going. We got to talking and, to my utter amazement, she said that she is also one of five siblings, all of whom grew up in foster care.

When she told me that the five of them had been "split up like puppies," as we had, I knew that she and the Alumni Thanksgiving was the real deal. The feeling was mutual. In a later email, Grace wrote: "I'm honored to read about your story, your siblings' stories, your family's story! We have a lot to talk about."

Grace went on: "I promise you this event is happening.... There is no need to bring food. I greatly appreciate the offer though. This is taken care of.... Dress is celebratory! We're here to celebrate a community of alumni of all ages with great ambiance and good company."

Besides being Director of MassNFCA, Grace is also an artist who expresses ideas and objects in metal as a "means to pass on knowledge."  Click here to see some of her works. In the photo below, she is preparing to teach a class in metallic art at Stonybrook Fine Arts.

Now, drum roll please, Grace's remarkable Thanksgiving dinner for former foster kids. First, the setting. It was beautiful, fit for royalty. Yes, royalty. Second, the place was packed with former foster kids. Many of them, I quickly learned, are in college, made possible in large measure by MassNFCA.

For me, this was breaking entirely new ground. While I had occasionally met former foster kids here and there over the years, I had never ever been in a room filled with former foster kids going to college and looking and acting like young people on their way up. I was pinching myself. Was this really happening?

It was. Here is the gathering being addressed by Grace:

The food was wonderful -- from appetizers to a traditional roast turkey dinner with all the fixings.

Did I mention that all of this was FREE, nothing, nada? Even the parking was free with ticket validation on the way out. Nor was there anyone there hitting us up for money. And I thought that this could be a scam?

Sorry, Grace!

This Thanksgiving dinner for former foster kids is visible, unmistakeable proof that Massachusetts has left behind the old days of aging out and dumping foster kids on the streets where, in desperation, many routinely fell victim to crime, drugs, and hopelessness.

Now MassNFCA's financial help for college and access to professional services gives former foster kids a chance for productive and happy lives, just like other young people lucky enough to have loving parents and stable homes.

It is clearly a smart investment. The payoff for Massachusetts taxpayers and society, not to mention former foster kids themselves, is huge. Thanks to MassNFCA, these young people, instead of being financial and social drains, can get an education, go on to good jobs and professions, pay taxes, raise families, be normal.

Take Nafis Delacruz, pictured here, who played the guitar and sang at the dinner.

If Nafis had been "aged out," he could easily have taken the low road. Instead, with the help of MassNFCA, he is a student at Salem State University while pursuing his love of music. He performs at many open mike nights in Salem and has done shows at Salem State University and Mcgann's Irish Pub in Boston.

For Nafis, as with all the other former foster kids at this dinner, the sky is the limit. See that smile? It's real. He was smiling that way the whole time as he sang and went around the room chatting it up.

Lest I come off as someone with his head in the clouds, I did have a couple of complaints. As I mentioned, the place was packed and the tables filled up fast -- except for ours. This was a young crowd and it appeared that no one wanted to sit at a table with a bald greybeard old enough to be their grandpa.

I, my wife Barbara, and my sister Ruby had the table to ourselves. Our table got lookers, but no takers. Finally, feeling badly for us, Grace brought over two social workers to sit with us. She introduced us to Maureen Messeder and Mary Gabon, both of whom had been on the job for more than 30 years.

I was thrilled. My only experience with social workers was as strangers who picked me up and drove me to a group home or placement. Now here I was as a full-fledged grownup sitting as equals with two of them. It was a pleasure meeting them and soon we were talking away, joking, and laughing.

"Now that aging out at 18 is no longer," I said, "that means that I haven't aged out and I can get services if I need them, right?"

Maureen and Mary both chuckled, though nervously.

"I guess so," Maureen said, a little uneasily.

"Great," I said. "So I can call and we'll explore my options?"

"Of course," said Maureen, getting that I was kidding. And we had a hearty laugh.

My second complaint was no coffee after dinner, young people not being coffee addicts like us old fogies. Maureen and Mary also missed the coffee.

Later, as raffle winners were being announced, Grace called out my name. I went up and she handed me a Dunkin Donuts gift card for $25. I thanked her and quietly offered to tell the assembly the story of my childhood in foster care. "No more than forty-five minutes," I said.

No response. I guess she didn't hear me.

Here's a photo of me up front after receiving my gift card from Grace.

Back at the table, I waved my gift card at Maureen and Mary. "Coffee complaint no more," I said. "You guys took care of it, right?"

They nodded, winked, and giggled like a couple of teenage girls.

"Oh, boy," I said, rubbing my hands happily. "My two social workers are already taking care of me."

Then Grace called my sister Ruby's name. She won a raffle prize too,  twenty dollars cash.

 She came back with a big smile on her face. Here she is with the envelope in her hand, with Grace at the podium in the background.

Ruby and I left amazed and delighted with what we had just experienced. When we were foster kids, it was something that we could never have imagined.

Grace, congratulations. Thanks to your great commitment and hard work, this foster alumni Thanksgiving was a huge success. For all that you, Maureen, Mary and the rest of your staff do for foster kids, thank you, thank you, thank you.

 So long and keep moving.
NOTE: George Pollock's novel,  State Kid: Hero of Literacy is  available as an E-book on Amazon's Kindle.

Billy Stone was a foster child.

He ran away from abuse.

He went to juvenile prison.

He went up from there.

And he did it his way.

  Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his real-life experiences growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison; "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life. "Unlove Story," is the true story of a husband -- writing anonymously as "Elvis" -- who is dumped after 38 years of marriage and lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.

For the Barnes and Noble Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver

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