Memphis, TN – Teens aging out of foster care face unique challenges. Last year Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen began the LIFT program, to address their needs.
Mary Lee Kimmons is a recent University of Memphis Law School Graduate. She also previously belonged to the state foster care program. Today, she is a local and national advocate for foster teens. She says they need just as much attention, if not more, than the adolescents in foster care. Kimmons says not all teens in the program come from juvenile detention centers, but often get stuck with the label.
Kimmons says she was fortunate and one of few older teens to get adopted. She says often because foster teens are moved so frequently they get behind in school, gradually giving up completely. She says the number of foster kids that graduate high school is around 50 percent with even fewer going to college. And when the age of accountability arrives, Kimmons says many foster teens are left to fend for themselves.
Tennessee has more than 10,000 kids in foster care custody. Youth Villages Mentor Program Supervisor Tangina Sanders says if she were to line up ten kids in a row within the program each would have a different reason for entering the system. Three months later, nine of those same kids would still be present.
In attempt to offer some stability to the lives of these foster kids, Governor Bredesen has teamed up with Youth Villages in creating a program that pairs volunteer mentors with pre-teens and teens in the state foster care system. The L.I.F.T. Mentor Program chooses adult's that will positively influence their teen and help in supporting them make the right decisions as they grow toward adulthood. Sanders says not just any volunteer will do.
So far Sanders says the community has been receptive to the program. With almost 400 mentor relationships created statewide, 250 of them belong in Memphis. Thirteen-year-old Chris, and mentor Robin Heatherly are one of those fostered relationships. They have been working together since last November. Chris entered Youth Villages through the juvenile detention center because of drug usage. Two weeks prior to the interview Chris' had an unfortunate eye opening experience.
The program that Chris belongs to allows him to go home to Knoxville every now and then which places him in situations with old friends and old habits. He says that had he not met Robin, he believes he would have fallen prey to old routine.
Chris says Robin is not just his mentor she's family. When the two visit they frequent the Library. Chris says he loves school and loves to read. Chris has moved to another detention facility by now in Nashville and hopes to be adopted by his grandparents within the next few months. Even farther down the road Chris says he wants to either become a mechanic or doctor with the hopes of one day living in Africa.