They come to her short on trust for most adults. A few have grown up in more than a dozen foster homes (one was in 30), sometimes forced to move their worldly possessions in a matter of hours.
Some have suffered abuse and neglect, struggled with chemical dependency, lashed out, lost faith in themselves.
But that’s not what Jessica Rogers sees. She sees young adults with infinite potential.
Rogers is the passionately engaged and warmhearted executive director of Minneapolis nonprofit C2i — Connections to Independence — a rare organization that provides stability and independent living skills to young people aging out of foster care.
She rejects the notion that children in foster care no longer need or desire adult guidance once they turn 18, or even 21. In fact, two-thirds of C2i’s clients (c2iyouth.org) are ages 18 to 24.
Participants are matched with one of C2i’s independent living skills counselors, who assist them in a host of practical and personal matters from getting a driver’s license, to finding housing and a job, analyzing a paycheck and budgeting, to taking care of their physical and mental health needs.
Most poignantly, these mentors offer a patient and nonjudgmental ear, guiding the young people toward goals that once seemed unattainable.
Ninety-two percent of Rogers’ kids earn their general educational development (GED) degree or high school diploma by age 21, compared with 54 percent of students nationally.
Sixty percent go on to postsecondary education, which includes trade schools and certification programs, compared with 14 percent of students nationally. One young participant just earned his master’s degree.
“We don’t leave them,” she said, noting that most teens remain with the same counselor throughout their time with C2i, which could be a decade.
“We don’t have degrees behind this. It just seems like common sense. We’re trying to get our kids from survival mode to thriving.”
“We” is a small staff of seven, most of whom wear more than one hat, operating out of homey third-floor offices in south Minneapolis’ Sabathani Community Center. The space has couches, video games, comfy chairs, a microwave and fridge.
“It’s a very family type of feel,” Rogers said. “We wanted it to feel like home.”
The younger kids, ages 14 to 17, receive one-on-one time monthly, and group programming two afternoons a week, with social activities once a month and during school breaks.
Older youths receive more hands-on training and workshops. Transportation via van is provided, although Rogers is down a van currently and sure would like someone to step up and donate one. (Please e-mail me if you are that wonderful person.)
Program director Michelle May came on board in 2009, after many years of working with homeless youths.
“I really liked their mission to be proactive before homelessness starts,” May said. “When I was growing up, I had a family. If anything major happened, I had a support system behind me.
“But youth in foster care usually can’t do that with their biological family. They may have been taken from their home at a young age and bounce from home to home. They lose a lot of trust.”
Board member Beth Forsythe, a partner with law firm Dorsey and Whitney, moved back to the Twin Cities in 2011 and wanted to get involved in a nonprofit. She grew up with two foster siblings, including an older foster brother.
Later, when he was on leave from the Air Force, he always came “home,” she said.
“He was just part of our family,” Forsythe said. “He absolutely loved family dinners. He loved hanging out with my parents.”
After meeting Rogers, she knew she had found the right fit.
“I was really impressed with the work that she is doing, the loyalty of her staff, the way they are able to stretch a dollar to provide meaningful services for this group,” Forsythe said.
Most funding for C2i comes through Hennepin County.
Rogers, who has been at the helm since 2008, calls this work her “divine purpose.” Adopted before she was a year old, she understands the challenges.
“You’re a teenager first of all,” said Rogers, the mother of an 11-year-old son. “You take away stability and a loving environment. These kids are angry, and with due right. And they know how to work the system.
“They test us and test us, but we know they’re going to come around.”
Independent living skills counselor Drew Lemmie, the father of three young children, has been with C2i for nine years. He’s learned to accept that the kids can remain “a little cool” for a long while. Then, Lemmie says, you get beautiful validation. He overheard one young man say, “I just want to thank Drew, who has been there for me as a father figure.”
“They’re people and they have needs,” he said. “They are not their circumstances.”
Teens are referred to C2i by social workers, guardians ad litem and foster parents. Some find the organization on their own, or through friends they’ve met in foster care.
Chante Mitchell, 24, never viewed C2i as a program. It’s “a family” to her, although one she confesses she didn’t embrace immediately.
Growing up in a home mired in abuse and drug use, she was pulled out by child protection and eventually taken in by an aunt who got her through high school. She came to C2i at 15 and was, in Rogers’ view at the time, “a tough cookie.”
“I thought I knew it all,” said Mitchell, who was homeless for a time when her son was 6 months old. Today, she lives in Maplewood and works in collections. Her mom helps out with her son, now 3, and is a “wonderful grandmother.”
Last week, Mitchell spoke on behalf of C2i at a national independent living conference in Orlando.
“There are times when I barely ask for help,” Mitchell said. Other times, she still goes to Rogers “as a mother to ask, ‘How am I going to do this?’ ”
Rogers knows to hold back so that Mitchell can find her own answer.
“I spent years being in a negative surrounding,” Mitchell said. “I just can’t surround myself with that. Without C2i, I wouldn’t have the tools and connections I have now.”