Many children who grow up in foster care struggle after turning 18 and are out on their own.
“The group of kids who age out of the foster system do absolutely horribly,” Medina County Job and Family Services Director Mead Wilkins said. “They struggle with everything from drug addiction to teenage pregnancy.”
Stephanie Walsh, who celebrated her 26th birthday Thursday, could have ended up as one of the tragedies. But she turned her life around.
JFS staff took a few moments Thursday morning to highlight the everyday success of foster families and the foster children in their care. The “Rising Up and Moving On” breakfast is hosted annually to honor the work of Medina families who have overcome obstacles.
“A large part of these children come to us at a very late age — 15, 16 or 17,” Wilkins said. “Sometimes their parents don’t want them anymore; sometimes it’s a failed adoption, or their family is having problems and unable to manage them. A lot of these children have also experienced a lot of trauma.”
Walsh was in foster care for six years with Dave and Connie Hatley. The Hatleys adopted her siblings and stayed in touch after Walsh moved to another foster home through what Wilkins described as a mutual agreement.
Walsh stayed at the Christian Children’s Home of Ohio and at a foster home in Spencer before she turned 18 and enrolled at Kent State University.
The Hatleys had given her the most stable home environment she had in years, but it wasn’t enough to prepare her for the struggle of being on her own in college.
“I was so excited to go back to college,” Walsh said. “For foster kids, it’s rare to go on to college.”
But after settling in at the university, Walsh said she began drinking and using marijuana. Her activities escalated to heroin use and she quit school and spent three years with an abusive man.
Wilkins said Walsh’s story is not unique for children who age out of foster care without getting adopted.
But Walsh made the decision to turn her life around. She ended the abusive relationship — a decision that left her homeless and jobless at 21.
“I’ve spent the last five years rebuilding what I destroyed during those three years,” she said.
She found shelter in Ashland County and began volunteering 60 hours a week with the local Salvation Army Kroc Corps Community Center.
The center hired Walsh full time under a grant from the Workforce Improvement Act. Walsh also continued to volunteer.
“I volunteered as much as I could because I knew I had to keep myself busy,” she said.
She said she struggled from time to time to stay away from drug use, but was determined to make a better life for herself.
“In the end, the love you find for yourself … creates amazing things in your life; blessings you never could imagine before,” she said.
Walsh is now engaged to be married, has started her own business — Stephanie Lynn Events — and is headed back to college. She said she plans to study either business or social work. She said her life is busy making wedding plans, looking at school options and working on her business.
“I’m grateful for Medina County Job and Family Services because if it wasn’t for them, my entire life would have been like the first three years of my adult life.”
During the breakfast, Walsh was surprised by a congratulatory message from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland. Brown praised her perseverance and called her an inspiration.
“People like Stephanie give us hope,” he said.
Walsh was joined Thursday by her foster family, the Hatleys, who said they always hoped she would find success.
“We hoped we had provided stability, but we weren’t sure,” Dave Hatley said.
When asked if he thought the home he provided for six years helped to contribute to Walsh’s success, Dave replied: “I’m not going to take credit. She deserves all the credit.”
Another honoree at Thursday’s breakfast was the Jarvis family, former residents of Seville. The Rev. Dan Jarvis and his wife, Melissa, have been foster parents to more than 30 children and have adopted six. Their three newest adoptions include Aleya, Jonah and Gideon. The three needed a foster home two years ago.
“I got an email about three kids that needed a home,” Dan Jarvis said and responded that his family was interested.
“I was just in a mood where I thought, yeah, that sounds good,” he said.
He and his wife never imagined how hectic a home with six children would be.
“In two words, it was ‘not easy,’ “ he said.
Earlier this year, adoption paperwork for the trio was finalized. Jarvis said serving as a foster parent and adoptive parent was possible because of the support his family received from JFS.
On the second day in the Jarvis home, Aleya, then only 3 years old, asked Melissa, “Can I call you Mommy?”
“Because of your work, our answer is ‘yes,’ you can call her Mommy,” Dan Jarvis told JFS staff at the breakfast.
Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.