Adult guidance is offered to kids, without families, who age out of foster care

  • Jane Lyons, second from left, became a mentor to Devonne McLaughlin, center, when McLaughlin became too old for foster care. The two still keep in touch now that McLaughlin has a family of her own: husband Ricky Cumba, to her right, and children Anaiyah Cumba, 7, Amaiyah Rivera, 5, McLaughlin and Ricky Cumba Jr., 2.

  • Jane Lyons, left, opens gifts with Devonne McLauglin of Springfield and her family in the living room of her Leeds home on Sunday, March 11, 2018. Behind them are McLaughlin's husband, Ricky Cumba, and their son, Ricky Cumba Jr., 2. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jane Lyons, seated center with legs crossed, hosts Devonne McLauglin, and her family to open gifts at her Leeds home on Sunday, March 11, 2018. McLauglin's husband, Ricky Cumba, is at right and their children, from left, Ricky Cumba Jr., 2, Anaiyah Cumba, 7, and Amaiyah Rivera, 5, play on the floor of the living room. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jane Lyons opens a gift from Devonne McLauglin and her family of Springfield in the living room of her Leeds home on Sunday, March 11, 2018. At left is Anaiyah Cumba, 7, and behind them are McLaughlin's husband, Ricky Cumba, and their son, Ricky Cumba Jr., 2. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lyons, left, opens gifts with McLaughlin and her family at a recent gathering at Lyons’ home in Leeds. McLaughlin's husband, Ricky Cumba, is at right and their son, Ricky Jr. is in the foreground. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jane Lyons, center, opens gifts with Devonne McLauglin of Springfield, seated next to her, and her family in the living room of her Leeds home on Sunday, March 11, 2018. McLauglin's husband, Ricky Cumba, is seated on couch and their children are, in foreground from left, Anaiyah Cumba, 7, Amaiyah Rivera, 5, and Ricky Cumba Jr., 2. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jane Lyons, second from left, opens gifts with Devonne McLauglin and her family of Springfield in the living room of her Leeds home on Sunday, March 11, 2018. From left are Anaiyah Cumba, 7, Amaiyah Rivera, 5, McLaughlin and her husband, Ricky Cumba, and their son, Ricky Cumba Jr., 2. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Devonne McLauglin and her husband, Ricky Cumba, both seated at right, of Springfield, watch their son, Ricky Cumba Jr., 2, play with a new toy while Jane Lyons, center, opens gifts with their daughters Anaiyah Cumba, 7, left, and Amaiyah Rivera, 5, in the living room of her Leeds home on Sunday, March 11, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • McLaughlin, now a social worker, says the life she enjoys today with her husband and their three children may not have been possible without Lyons’ guidance. From left, Ricky Cumba, McLaughlin holding Ricky Cumba Jr., Lyons, holding Amaiyah Rivera and Anaiyah Cumba. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2018 3:39:58 PM

As a teenager, Devonne McLaughlin, 26, bounced from one foster family to another, with only a black trash bag to hold her belongings, and a feeling of loneliness.

“I didn’t want to get close to people because I knew that it is just a matter of time before I’m going to have to go to another home,” she says.

Heroin had stolen her parents from her, she says. Her mother had died from AIDS and her father was mostly absent.

And then, when she reached her 18th birthday, even foster care was no longer there for her. She became one of the 26,000 young people in the United States who age out of the system each year. Like so many of the others, she had no one to guide her into adult life.

“Who do I reach out to?” she asks.

Those deemed too old for foster care often have no one to help them fill out job applications, apply for college, or deal with any of the speed bumps they hit on the road to adulthood. This can have tragic consequences, says Jane Lyons, the executive director at Friends of Children, a nonprofit in Hadley dedicated to helping children who have experience with foster care. Some become homeless, victims of sex trafficking or prison inmates, she says.

“When young people age out of foster care without connections, enduring true connections to adults, trusted, reliable adults, they are at high risk,” she says. “…That is not acceptable and it shouldn’t be that way.”

Offering support

In an attempt to remedy that, Friends of Children is launching a pilot program called FOCUS, which will connect these young adults, between the ages of 18 and 24, with volunteers who can mentor and support them.

FOCUS is being mostly funded by a $30,000 Beveridge Family Foundation grant and a $10,000 grant from the The Massachusetts Service Alliance, a private, nonprofit organization that serves as the state commission on service and volunteerism. 

The FOCUS program, which is to begin in April, requires a three-year commitment. Volunteers must be over the age of 21, be able to pass a background check, and be willing to spend 15 hours a month volunteering. 

It is a model inspired by the continuing relationship between McLaughlin and Lyons that began the day McLaughlin, at age 18, arrived at the Friends of Children office, desperate for help. She was just about to start college at Westfield State University and felt overwhelmed.

“I just blurted everything out. ... how I bounced from home to home,” McLaughlin says. And now, here she was starting college with a practical problem: “I didn’t have a lot of things for my dorm room.”

Lyons listened, told her to slow down, and listened some more.

Friends of Children first helped McLaughlin with small things: pens and paper for her desk, a green polka dotted comforter to keep her warm.

Her tuition was covered by a grant from the university and McLaughlin found a part-time job at the H&M clothing store in the Holyoke Mall to help pay some of her other expenses. But still, she says, it was a struggle. 

 “I just didn't have a lot of money to spend on anything, so that’s when they came in to help.”

A strong connection

 Lyons also provided her emotional support, doling out relationship advice or just offering a shoulder to cry on. During the holidays and school vacations, when other students headed home, McLaughlin went to stay at Lyons’ house.

“Jane helped me with everything,” she says. “I don’t know what about me she just fell in love with. We were really close and we have built this really strong relationship since then.”

When McLaughlin became pregnant with her first child at age 20, she was no longer allowed to live in a dormitory. She stayed with a cousin until Lyons helped her find a two-bedroom apartment paid for, during the academic year, by Friends of Children’s Foster Dignity program, a flexible source of support for foster youth who need help with every day expenses. This money got McLaughlin settled in, but all the while, Lyons was by her side, helping her pick out things for the apartment.

“Without her help I don’t know if I would have been able to stay in school, it would have been really hard,” McLaughlin says.

Forming a life plan

Formalizing the kind of relationship McLaughlin and Lyons enjoy, FOCUS is launching this spring with five young people. Another five will be brought on in the fall. There is a short online application for those who are interested in being considered.

The program will match each young adult first with an “anchor” volunteer who will work with the individual to select two other volunteers to join the team based on shared interests or skills that the young person might want to develop. For instance, a volunteer who is a banker might be able to give the young person help with personal finance. Someone who is a welder might introduce a future job skill. The way they spend their time together is flexible. They can get together for social activities, like bowling or taking a walk. Or they can just talk on the phone.

Through the program, the young people will be required to develop life plans, identifying what is important to them – addressing questions like what they want to do or be and where they want to live – which will be revisited and evaluated every few months with the volunteers, says Lyons.

The idea is to help these young people shape their futures, establish goals and have someone by their side, cheering them on, says Lyons. “Some of the young people have recently finished college or are about to, and have no one in their corner at all to bounce ideas off of.”

When the young people fail or trip up, ideally, the mentors will be there to listen and lean on, Lyons says, they will fill part of the gap of not having parents to help out.

“You are there for when they fall on their face. We’ve all fallen down. It’s part of learning,” she says.

Living her dream

McLaughlin, who is now a social worker, is on an advisory board for the FOCUS program, also composed of three others who have firsthand experience living in foster care and a few community members who are interested in the program’s success. Over the last several months, they’ve gotten together to brainstorm and plan for the program’s launch.

“It is my way of giving back,” McLaughlin says.

She is married now. She and her husband, Ricky Cumba, who works at a local behavioral health center, own a home in Springfield, which they share with their schnauzer mix, Miracle, their son, Ricky Jr., 2, McLaughlin’s daughter, Amaiyah, 5, and Cumba’s daughter Anaiyah, 7. The walls in their living room are crowded with framed photos of their children and handmade art with words like “love” and “family.” Toys are stacked high on their porch and the small fenced-in yard has a play set where children congregate.

McLaughlin says she is living a dream, a life, she says, that might not have been possible without Lyons’ guidance.

“I feel like God placed her in my life for a reason and without her I don’t even know if I’d be where I’m at right now,” she says.

She says she hopes that the FOCUS program will make these kind of relationships possible for other young people coming out of the foster care system.

“…They are people who are trying to make their way, and they’re frightened and they are not sure how to proceed in life,”Lyons says. “The theory is that when there are good connections made, there will be good progress made toward helping the young person shape their future.”

For more information about Friends of Children or to apply to volunteer through the FOCUS program, call 413-586-0011 or visit www.joinfocus.org.




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