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Open Table Transforms into Community of Hope: Year 3 in Cleveland

by Amber Donovan , Executive Director, Community of Hope
A group of 6 people standing in front of a birthday cakeIn 2018, the Open Table initiative in Cleveland exploded after being featured over 10 times throughout the year in Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer. Open Table launched in 2017 as a Cuyahoga County initiative for youth who are aging out of the foster care system. As the program has grown and evolved, the County has continued to offer their support and collaboration.

Open Table now has over 300 registered volunteers and we have assigned over 200 of those volunteers to tables in 2018 alone. We also launched 27 new tables in 2018. The expansion prompted us to create a new nonprofit called Community of Hope so that we could expand and sustain the work. We needed more staff to help recruit, train and support both the young adults on the tables and the community volunteers. Additionally, A group of six people posing for the camera on a living room couchwe now have our own office across the street from Cleveland State University that is easily accessible for our young adults.

Community of Hope’s mission as an interfaith nonprofit is to build lasting relationships, nurture hope and restore dignity to Cleveland’s young adults impacted by foster care. In February, at the Plain Dealer building we had over 300 people show up for a community convening to learn more about our work and how they can get involved. More than half of the people in attendance that night signed up to serve on a Community or a “table.” We recruit six to eight people to come around one young person (and if they have children, their children). The community or “table” meets for an hour each week for a year, but that is just the start of their friendship. The goal is to help develop permanent, trustworthy people in the lives of youth: people that they can talk to when they need direction and encouragement; people they can trust to do what they say they are going to do. We believe they are worth our time, and they also have things to teach us.

As a recent celebration of the year, we had over 140 youth and adult volunteers attend a Friendsgiving meal. After the meal, young people shared their gratitude for the people around their tables. One young lady stood up, motioning to the people around her table said, “I wasn’t so sure when Ms. Bev told me I should consider having a table, but now I can honestly say I have a family now. A real family of my own.”

Another young lady talked about the “divine connection” between the members of her group and herself. She called them “her soul family.” At another event, this same young lady shared what it had been like to have her own supportive group. She said: “For the first time in my life I am surrounded by people who celebrated me for just showing up and being myself.”

Our volunteers’ lives are also changed by getting to know people from diverse backgrounds and different cities. At an event at Tri-C in October, one table member told the audience:

“The experience of serving on this table has opened my world to new opportunities and insights and being with my group has made me a better person. Our young person has taught me so much about forgiveness and she gives me hope. I have learned that we are not doing this to save anyone or to fix anyone. We are just here to listen with our hearts, not just our ears.”

We know that mentoring matters. Having even one caring adult in their lives can change the trajectory of the lives of our youth—imagine what having six to eight consistently, committed people can do! We have seen amazing things happen for our young people as their opportunities improve when supported by people who care about them.

Of our youth who have finished their first year, 93 percent are still in relationship with their table members, and some have been together for up to five years. Of the groups we have launched this year, 89 percent of them meet consistently. Remarkably, 100 percent of our young adults are housed securely. Eighty-nine percent of our young people are working or are getting an education. We are seeing young people set goals and achieve them with the support and concern of their Community. We are more than a mentoring program; we are “framily” (friends that are like family).

The exciting shift that has taken place this year is that we are beginning to serve youth who are still in foster care, but about to emancipate. We serve 18-29-year-olds, but we want to begin to connect earlier to youth who are about to leave foster care so that they are not on their own as they transition from foster care.

For more information about what we do, please go to our website at www.hopeCLE.org and follow us on Facebook for up to date posts on our work at https://www.facebook.com/hopeCLE.org/.

Multimedia:

Community of Hope: Makayla (A Greater Cleveland) Video

Open Table Open Hearts

Open Table Open Hearts: Year 2 in Cleveland

If you have youth you would like to refer for consideration for a Table, please send an email to amberdonovan@hopeCLE.org.