Commentary: A fresh start for former foster-care youths

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Naje Taylor, a former foster child, works in The Monkey & The Elephant nonprofit coffee shop with manager Karin Tindall.

By Rosemary McDonough

Sherreiff McCrae was 5 years old when he was placed in the care of a neighbor. Not long after, the Department of Human Services intervened, moving Sherreiff to a group home. There he found stability and safety. But once he turned 18, he was on his own - no family, no education, no job.

Every day, America's foster care system cuts off social services to 60 young people like Sherreiff. They have become legal adults - but in many ways are woefully unprepared for the adult world.

What can one person do? Open a coffee shop.

Lisa Miccolis, a Wayne native, founded The Monkey & The Elephant, a nonprofit coffee shop in North Philadelphia that employs young adults who have lived in foster care.

The shop, at 2831 W. Girard Ave., gives these youths personal and professional skills, employment, and a supportive community. Its nurturing work environment provides the stable surrogate family that these young adults desperately need. Using both charitable contributions and café revenue to support her young employees, Miccolis hopes to launch them on a path toward leading independent lives.

Foster-care children are at high risk for every possible tragedy, from homelessness to prison. Miccolis' goal is daunting, because the statistics argue against success.

Some 400,000 American children are in foster care today, and many bounce from one foster home to another, with no chance to establish roots or permanent, loving relationships.

At any given time, more than 110,000 of these children are waiting to be adopted. But when prospective parents consider adoption, they often have babies in mind. They are generally not prepared for the challenges of an older child or teen - especially when that child is a victim of trauma.

The result is a painful phenomenon called "aging out." Each year, if they are not adopted, more than 20,000 children lose foster-care services: a family, a home, regular meals, the chance to navigate an education or career.

According to the National Council for Adoption, only 58 percent of these kids will graduate from high school. Less than 3 percent will earn a college degree. One in five will become homeless. One in four will become incarcerated within two years. Seventy-one percent of the girls who age out of foster care will be pregnant by age 21.

With more than 4,500 children in foster care in Philadelphia alone, Miccolis found fertile ground to address this crisis. After hiring her staff, she teamed up with clinical social worker Karen Ament. They offer employees a 10-month job-and-life-skills program that includes an ongoing assessment of their abilities and emotional state. Trainees learn everything from verbal communication and critical thinking to dealing with the public and handling money.

"Cafés have a natural sense of community, where customers want to engage with others," Miccolis says. "Our kids are surrounded by a community of supportive adults they can rely on before and after they leave foster care."

The results are impressive. All six "graduates" of The Monkey & The Elephant have found new jobs, and Miccolis' six employees are on track to follow suit.

One of them is Sherreiff, now 27, with four young children of his own. During a recent work break, he shared his story.

"After I turned 18, I had to leave my group home," he said. "It was clean and nice and safe. But then I ended up in the projects. They were dangerous. I had dropped out of high school, and I didn't know much about working. I had some odd jobs, cleaning out houses and stuff. Nothing much. Then a friend told me about The Monkey & The Elephant.

"Now I have a steady job. I'm sharing an apartment with somebody else who works here, who was also in foster care. I'm learning life skills - patience, reliability, how to work with people. I feel comfortable here."

Sherrieff wishes that the foster-care system would support young adults until they are 25. What do they need most?

"Stability," he says. "Continuity. Having people you can depend on." His dream: "I want to start an entertainment business that will be as successful as Walt Disney."

The Monkey & The Elephant is creating a crucial sense of belonging, purpose, and independence for kids who have lived without the love of a permanent family. It is the fresh start these young people deserve.

For more information, visit www.themonkeyandtheelephant.org.

Rosemary McDonough is a writer in Narberth and former board chair of the National Council For Adoption (www.adoptioncouncil.org). wmcdee@verizon.net