After 10 years in foster care, Lamar Madkin enrolled at Washington State University. A scholarship covered tuition and books, but extras of college life weren’t affordable.
That’s when a WSU academic counselor told him about Safety Net, a Spokane nonprofit that paid for his phone bill and dorm room deposit. Safety Net helps young people who have aged out of the foster care system by offering items intended to help them become self-sufficient and meet goals, such as emergency payments or even furniture.
Young people who leave foster care are at higher risk for homelessness and legal troubles. Without family to support them, many find themselves alone in navigating the start of adulthood, said Safety Net co-founder Coleen Quisenberry.
“The thought is these children have no one to fall back on during those difficult years of learning how things get done,” Quisenberry said. “We try to assist them so they don’t fall through the cracks, and they know the community does care.”
Now age 24, Madkin did well at school until a family situation forced frequent trips back to Seattle, and his grades suffered. Madkin went to a California junior college to bring those grades up before transferring back to WSU a year ago, and Safety Net helped a second time.
“This is all with them not asking for anything in return, just for me to have a successful second run at this,” said Madkin, who is set to graduate in a year. The nonprofit provided furniture and a bed for an apartment, and it paid an outstanding bill so he could return.
“I had owed $800 to WSU in order to come back,” he said. “Safety Net paid that for me to register last summer, so I wouldn’t have been readmitted to the university if it wasn’t for their help.”
Founded a decade ago, the nonprofit now helps 100 to 150 foster kids a year. Safety Net also made a significant difference for Courtney Canova, 23, who lives in Spokane after graduating from WSU in 2015. She now has her sister staying with her after six years of separation.
Canova entered foster care at age 7. She went to seven schools and had 19 placements. There were also spurts of homelessness.
“The biggest impact Safety Net had for me came when I was 17, and my biological father passed away from complications from a stroke,” Canova said. “I didn’t have any resources or family to help me. Safety Net helped pay for the urn for my dad.”
Safety Net also helped after Canova found out she was accepted at WSU, but she didn’t know how she would cover child care costs while at school.
“It was nerve-racking at first because child care is so expensive,” she said. “They paid for my son’s child care on campus, so he was within walking distance to all my classes. That played a significant role in me being able to graduate.”
Similar support helps other former foster kids remain in housing, school and jobs, plus handle difficulties, just as many parents do for adult children starting out, Quisenberry said. The nonprofit also funds projects among younger foster teens for achievement and high school goals.
Safety Net might pay for wifi to do homework, a laptop for college, or a bus pass so a youth can get to work.
Molly Allen, who started Safety Net with Quisenberry, is the mom of a former foster youth who is now 23 and came to her home at age 10. Also part of the Dave, Ken and Molly show on 92.9 FM, Allen has seen firsthand the support he needed during teen years and as a young adult.
Many former foster youth starting out have difficulties paying for small costs beyond what is covered by government subsidies or scholarships, she said. The ages of people receiving support typically are 18 to 22, but as young as 15 and up to 25.
“What we do is fill the gaps where there are no government entities doing those things,” Allen said. “For instance, they’ll get them an apartment, but they don’t furnish it, so we’ll come along and help furnish it.”
“The support gives them the sense that they’re not alone.”
The money for that support all comes from donors and community fundraising, she said, since Safety Net doesn’t rely on any government dollars. It holds one large annual fundraiser, and this year’s Safety Net art auction event will be 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Beacon Hill.
The nonprofit also keeps donated items in a warehouse where youth can select furnishings to keep.
“We buy everybody a new bed from Northwest Bedding, and we get a great discount,” Allen said. “Anything Safety Net gives them they can keep forever. That’s new to foster youth.”
However, Safety Net is careful about giving assistance multiple times if a young person repeatedly makes bad choices, Allen added.
“We’ve seen a lot of positives, but sometimes it doesn’t work, just like it sometimes doesn’t work with our own kids. They make bad choices. Maybe they’ll come back to us in a year, and we’ll say, ‘OK you’re making good choices now. We can support you.’ ”
Both Allen and Quisenberry say the nonprofit’s number of success stories remain high around youth in Spokane and North Idaho. Safety Net partners with other organizations, including Volunteers of America, Crosswalk, and Embrace Washington.
Allen said Safety Net leaders have some frustrations about getting more referrals to help foster youth from people who work directly with the teens and young adults, although some contacts who know about Safety Net refer frequently.
“We talk to schools, coaches, counselors and social workers, and we tell them we have very little red tape; we’re here,” Allen said. “We have a hard time getting them to respond sometimes. My only thought is it’s a group of kids who are at the end of their time, social workers are overworked, and these kids are difficult sometimes.”
“The combination of those things has us frustrated because we don’t think people are using our resources as much as they could.”
Safety Net is networking with Embrace Washington, which supports foster families and younger foster kids, has included a combined focus for holiday parties and gifts for children.
Each year in the U.S., about 25,000 youth exit the foster care system in the U.S. before being unified with family of origin, being adopted, or finding another living arrangement, according to a 2014 report for the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development.
A September 2016 report for Washington state’s Department of Social & Health Services identified 1,365 youth statewide who exited foster care from July 2010 to September 2013. One in five youth aging out of foster care was arrested or jailed within a year, the report said.
A 2013 housing report for DSHS estimated about 35 percent of foster care youth experienced homelessness or housing instability in the year after aging out of the system.
DSHS provides foster care placement services to children in need of protection due to abuse, neglect or family conflict. Most youth age out of the foster care system at age 18, but some remain in the Extended Foster Care program.
Canova said she believes Safety Net is more than a group that renders aid. It’s been a support system for her and other former foster kids.
“They truly care about the vulnerable populations in our community,” she said. “That is crucial when you don’t have biological or extended relatives to provide support, so Safety Net supplements that. That’s the most important thing.”
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