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One day when Michael Kelly was 15, he was met at school by a court representative who told him not to go home after his classes. That's how he learned he was being placed in foster care.

Kelly's parents divorced when he was 7, and his family struggled with mental illness and substance abuse. He was sent first to live with an uncle and aunt, later with a grandmother. His three sisters were placed in foster homes with strangers in northeastern Minnesota; he never lived with them again.

In the years to come, he moved 15 times around the Duluth area, attended five different schools and experienced poverty.

During those challenging years, Kelly promised himself that someday he would help young people in foster care navigate the hardships he experienced. Now 24 and a first-year student in the University of Minnesota Medical School, Kelly is working to fulfill that promise.

The result is MD Link, a program Kelly founded that matches medical students as mentors with youth who have experienced foster care, homelessness, physical or sexual abuse, food insecurity, human trafficking and other challenges. The program also trains mentors to work more effectively with vulnerable young people, learning to better understand the youths' perspectives in hopes that, someday, they'll be more sensitive — and potentially more medically effective — health care providers.

So far, a few dozen mentors have received training and are scheduled to be paired with mentees this month, Kelly said. At least a couple dozen other students have expressed interest in joining the program; incoming students will be notified of the opportunity when they arrive in the fall.

When mentors and mentees get together, they needn't spend all their time in intense discussions, Kelly said. Depending on interests, they can play basketball, apply for scholarships, or go to a coffee shop "and talk about life."

Back when he was still in foster care, Kelly told himself, "I'm not going to let my life go by and continue this cycle."

After foster care, Kelly attended St. John's University, working evenings as a janitor to pay his way. On school breaks when dorms were closed, he couch-surfed or joined mission or service trips so he'd have room and board.

"I never had to sleep on the streets, but I definitely didn't have a bed of my own or a room of my own," Kelly said. "It was very, very tough. There were a lot of trials and tribulations I had to go through."

In 2021, he conducted research on a bill to create a state Office of the Foster Youth Ombudsperson, which the Minnesota Legislature passed this year.

"I'm going to change the cycle personally myself," he said. "Here today in medical school, it's time for me to help the next person in line."

'A different path'

Contributing to the effort is Emmanuel Fale, 27, also a first-year medical student at the U who, at Kelly's request, became co-president of MD Link. Fale, too, has "always been passionate" about helping struggling youth.

Fale did not endure the same hardships Kelly did, but he grew up familiar with housing and food insecurities, dividing his time between parents' homes. His mother lived in a campground in Lancaster, Penn., and his father lived in an apartment on the south side of St. Cloud, where Fale lived among young people from low-income families.

Fale became involved in the NAACP and the African American Male Forum of St. Cloud.

"I had the opportunity to get mentorship early on in my life," Fale said. "I understand how that mentorship played a pivotal role in how I was doing things. ... I was shown a different path by having Black role models."

Fale was doing some volunteering at the U when Kelly approached him and asked him to join MD Link.

"I think it's phenomenal, honestly," he said. "We have a good set of mentors that we put through rigorous training." Those mentors were chosen, he noted, "because of the populations we're working with."

Better Together Youth Mentoring, part of Minneapolis' Rebound education, advocacy and rehabilitation organization, is one of a handful of programs partnering with MD Link to match mentors with vulnerable youth. Better Together works with young people on probation in Hennepin County.

"We partnered so I would be able to tap into their volunteers and they would be able to tap into my program," said Will Tabor, 41, who has run his program for 16 years.

"Since we started talking two or three months ago, I've been able to share some of my training decks with them. They've been able to share some new things that I hadn't researched. I can't think of a partnership that has come together this well, this fast."

MD Link has also worked closely with Mo Hicks, also a first-year U medical student (and class president) who specializes in training mentors for young people who have experienced trauma. People who volunteer as mentors often come from more privileged backgrounds and may not be familiar with the kinds of trauma that the youth they work with have endured, Hicks said.

Hicks teaches mentors to try to abstain from judging their mentee's behaviors or life experiences and instead "meet them where they're at."

It's about "allowing them to lead the conversation instead of asserting our own beliefs," Hicks said.

For example, in mentoring a person abusing chemicals, the approach would be not to lecture on the dangers of substance abuse but "to address the benefits the mentee gets from substance abuse, their knowledge of why they use it, what they think the challenges are of not using it."

This nonjudgmental approach — called cultural humility — is a change from how doctors typically have been trained, Hicks said.

MD Link is growing fast, Kelly said. Participants have put together a research project, university faculty have discussed adding the program to the curriculum of the medical school and maybe other departments as well — such as the pharmacy, dental and law schools — and possibly eventually renaming it U Link. Even faculty at other local colleges have expressed interest.

It seems to be the only program of its kind in the country, Kelly said. "In our preliminary research, we don't see anywhere in the country with this kind of pairing." Research drawn from the project could be used to spread the concept.

Meanwhile, participants are working on getting nonprofit status and plan to hold a fundraiser Oct. 14.

"We're sitting on a golden egg," Kelly said. "I'm going to make this happen."

MD Link will be offering opportunities that Kelly has spent years planning to provide.

"I know what it's like to not have the resources, to feel alone, to feel like I'm not living the life I want to live. I want to change the trajectory so [others] don't have to go through things I went through as a kid," he said.

"I joke that medicine is kind of secondary."