SANDY — One of America's unspoken problems is what happens to kids after they age out of foster care.
Each year, 300 youth in Utah leave foster care. A staggering 40 percent of these 18-year-olds will end up living on the streets their first year out of the system. Nationally, one in three will end up homeless, in jail, or dead.
"If they get to the age of 18 and they don't have a family, and they can't get adopted, they've fallen through all the safety nets that our system has for them," said Marianne Brough, executive director of the Utah Youth Mentor Project. "We can be the difference that turns that around and it doesn't take a lot of time."
The Youth Mentor Project works to help these youth transition to independence. They do so by teaching them life skills that most didn't learn in foster care, things like budgeting, money management, getting an apartment and how to get a job.
The other key component is helping to get these youth into safe and affordable housing, since nearly half spend some time homeless with nowhere to go.
The Milestone House in Sandy is one of two homes in Salt Lake County that the mentor project has secured to help aged out youth. Five youth live in each home at a time, and with the help of a residential adviser they learn life skills while working toward self-sufficiency. Rent is cheaper, and the money they pay is deposited into an account that they earn back as they complete their goals.
"They can use that money to move into their next place," Brough said. "So it's the middle ground between state's custody and all the way on my own. There has to be a step in the middle and that's what Milestone is."
The second component of the program is pairing youth with adults, mentors who will be there for support.
"Most mentors spend eight to 10 hours a month with a youth in a personal activity. They go bowling or they take them comparison shopping at the grocery store," Brough said.
The mentors also help connect the youth with resources to help in their goals toward sufficiency. Like Brough always says to her young friends, "it's all about who you know, right?"
The statistics show this personal support makes a huge difference.
Brough credits the program for cutting the arrest rate among aged-out foster youth in half, from 37 to 15 percent. And, she said the program has helped to slash the rate of teen pregnancy from 35 percent to six percent.
Likening life to a bunch of dominoes, Brough said the mentors provide the stability, support and consistency the youths haven't had in their lives to keep the "dominoes of life" from rippling out of control.
Jordan Marsh, 19, spent time living out of an abandoned train car before participating in the Youth Mentor Project. He said he's happy to have someone who knows more about life to bounce things off, especially when times are tough. He also appreciated knowing that he has someone to call, even if it's just to talk.
"If you have somebody that's there for you, and you know they're there for you, and they say they're there for you and they have been there for you, then you know that it's a different feeling," Marsh said. "Because you can get through a lot more if you have somebody."
Having "somebody" is something these young people haven't had much of in their short lives.
"It creates that family aspect for you," said Reece Garcia, a 20-year-old who spent eight years in foster care. "And I mean, who doesn't want that?"
He added, "It's a lot better than having a caseworker, you know, someone who is over you, rather than with you." Victoria Edmonds has been a mentor with the program for the past six years.
"I know how hard being a youth was for me, with an amazing support system, an amazing family, and I really struggled," Edmonds said. "It really hit me when Marianne told me that most of these kids end up on the doorstep at 18 with a garbage bag full of clothes, nowhere to go, and I thought, ‘how do they possibly survive?' "
She describes her time being a mentor as "an amazing journey," and urges more people to get involved.
"There are hundreds of kids in the system who just need someone to kind of walk side by side with them," Edmonds said.
For information on how you can help, go to the Utah Youth Mentor Project website.