Open Table Opens Hearts

 

By: Amber Donovan, Open Table Director for Young Adults (guest blogger)

In January of 2014, I heard Jon Katov, Co-founder of a national mentoring program called The Open Table speak at Grumpy’s restaurant in Tremont. He was speaking to a room of social workers about how being in a relationship with a homeless veteran transformed his life. He talked about how wanting to help this man, changed him, changed his friends, changed his church, and changed his community. He talked about transforming poverty on many levels and in many forms. His message was clear – The power of relationships can transform and heal the brokenness we all experience as we walk through this life.

After hearing Katov speak, I was immediately hooked and told him that I was interested in seeing The Open Table model expand in Cleveland for young adults leaving foster care at 18 and beyond. The idea of having 6-8 adults sitting around a young person on a weekly basis (for up to a year and beyond) seemed like a powerful way to help someone move ahead in his/her life. So, I set forth talking to churches, friends, social media, and local government to gain interest in joining the model. Leaders at the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services were excited at the prospect of helping young people who age out of foster care, and were eager to see if this model could work.

I quickly recruited 3 tables worth of volunteers and we were off. My dream was that each young person leaving foster care, and who wanted a table (community) of people to come around them, could have one. After all, we have about 120+ kids a year in Cleveland leaving care, and there were over 1500 churches in the yellow pages – so I felt like this was an achievable goal.

I started the first young adult table with a 22 year old young man who was homeless for the first three months we worked with him. To protect his identity, I will call him Mark. There were six of us sitting around the table with Mark. We didn’t know him and we didn’t know each other. Our first gathering was awkward, slow, frustrating, and yet fun at the same time. We met downtown at The Family Ministry Center, and I remember worrying about how Mark would get to the Center. Should we pick him up? What if he didn’t show up? However, week after week, he was there waiting when I got there for the meeting. Our meetings would consist of eating something together around the table, sharing events occurring in our lives, and discussing his life goals. We would look at the barriers in his life—unpaid fines, legal issues, housing, education, finances and week by week we would plan, organize, teach, and encourage. We would leave the meetings tired, sometimes frustrated, sometimes encouraged, but changed by our hour together.

We were pouring our lives into him, and he was pouring his life into us. We began to really see the depths of poverty and the unfair nature of many of the circumstances that he faced in his life. He had lived in institutions for most of his life, rather than a family environment. The early trauma he had suffered manifested itself in many different ways throughout our year together.

From looking for jobs to attending church to cooking dinner together as a family in our homes – Mark was becoming a part of our daily lives. We loved Mark and he loved us. We saw his potential, hope, and capacity for more than the day to day living he was doing, and wanted to do whatever we could to help him go further in his life. We did not want him to be limited by his traumatic childhood, but to be free to do and be whatever he wanted to be in his life.

A transforming moment in our table came when we held a party for his 23rd birthday. Unbeknownst to us, he had never had a birthday party before in all of the 22 previous years of his life. That night, he had a cake with candles, gifts, and people singing “Happy Birthday” to him in celebration of his life. When he blew out the candles, I saw in his eyes, the dreams of a young boy longing to be celebrated. There is something settling about knowing you belong and knowing you are loved for who you are, not what you accomplish. At the end of the night, he told my husband and son, “This was the best night of my life.”

Mark has had many challenges in the almost 3 years that we have known him, but he knows we are here for him. He is currently working two jobs, living in an apartment, and considering culinary or trade school. He recently celebrated his 25th birthday and like his 23rd birthday, we had a party to celebrate. He spends holidays with his table members as well and never has to worry about being alone. He has people he can turn to now, and tells anyone who will listen that “we have his back”.

Sitting around the table with Mark changed my life. I would say it has changed the lives of everyone who has accepted the call to sit with a young person. I’m working on getting more tables for more young people leaving foster care, and am so pleased that Cuyahoga County has joined me. Cuyahoga County sees the importance of young people having permanent supportive connections. That’s why the Division of Children and Family Services invested the resources to help me work full-time to recruit more tables for young people. DCFS staff provide technical and administrative support, help me connect with young people to share the value of having their own table, and help me collaborate with people in the community who might sponsor a table and make a difference in a young person’s life. At DCFS, they believe in supporting young people as they age out of foster care and helping them get a good start in their adult life.

If you are interested in learning more about how you or your organization could get involved, please contact me at amberdonovan@theopentable.org.