Open Table isn’t only the reservation app on your phone – It is a national faith-based model we are using to help support youth who aged out of foster care. When a young person leaves foster care without being adopted or going back to their family, they exit care into the community alone. The Open Table model is changing that by helping create small communities of hope. We recruit 6-8 people to come around one young person (and often their young children). The community or “table” meets one hour a week for one year, but that is just the start of their friendship. The goal is to help develop some permanent, trustworthy people in the lives of youth. People that they can talk to when they need direction and encouragement. People that they can trust to do what they say they are going to do. Our goal with this group mentoring strategy is to create lasting connections and loving community for our young friends. We believe they are worth our time and they also have things to teach us.
Sometimes people say, “I can’t commit to one hour a week, my schedule is just too busy.” The truth is, the model isn’t for everyone. We need people who are committed and consistent. Young people who have been moved around do not need more people in their lives who aren’t going to keep their promises. At a recent table launch, a woman at the table said, “I realized that I make time for what is important to me, and I decided that this is important. That you are important to me.” She went on to pledge her commitment to the process of showing up and meeting her young friend where she is in her life. The young lady left the table meeting feeling filled with hope and feeling connected to these new friends/mentors because of their willingness to just be in her life. Table volunteers don’t need any special skills, just a humbleness and openness to do their best.
The most powerful voice in the Open Table is the voice of our brothers and sisters around the table. Since it is National Mentoring Month, we asked two of our young people to share their thoughts anonymously:
- “Transitioning to adulthood isn't easy, especially when you don't have the greatest support. My 20's have been nothing but unanswered questions and a guessing game, hoping that I make the right decisions while trying to figure out who I am. I was reluctant at first to join Open Table. But now I can't see my life without them. I have a group of people I can turn to for answers and guidance. We're all different colors, backgrounds, and characters, but somehow we all work. I love my new family and they love me too. They show me support and make sure to check on me when I'm not having the greatest day. I know I'm never alone because I have a support system of 7 backing me up.”
- “Since learning about Open Table several months ago and agreeing to have a table, I have found that the experience of interacting with a group of loving, caring and genuine people who choose to be in my life to help make it better, has given me so much joy, and happiness and trust that I am worthy of love and that I matter which is something everyone wants and needs to feel. They have changed my life and I have changed theirs.”
In 2017, we launched 10 tables for youth who aged out of foster care. It takes a village to create a community full of tables for our young people. Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services has been our champion and helped us each step of the way find young people ready for tables. The YWCA of Greater Cleveland, National Council of Jewish Women, Fill This House, and Fostering Hope are all nonprofits that have been leaders in our efforts to recruit community members and to support our youth. Additionally, we have several churches in the community who have licensed or recruited members to sit on tables. We believe that Cleveland Open Table is a community effort, and we are open to creating new partnerships with individual volunteers, faith communities, nonprofits, and businesses in 2018.
If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, go to http://cfs.cuyahogacounty.us/en-US/Mentor.aspx or email CLEcommunityofhope@gmail.com.
We’ve also created a blog and a Facebook page to help share our stories. We need more tables for more young people and if you are interested in putting in the time and humbly learning from people around tables we would love to have you join us.