Bridging the Gap

By Reed Boettcher – Great Plains Living

“Aging In” provides stepping stones for foster teens who are “Aging Out”

   Young adults who age out of the child welfare system are more likely to be unemployed, homeless, pregnant, convicted of crime, and under-educated.  There is plenty of public information on these statistics in which the findings show the negative outcomes for youths asking themselves, “Now What?”
    Shake the dust off the thinking cap and try to recall your own mental state at the age of 18.  Like those who are aging out of foster care there were probably a lot of us asking ourselves the same question but unlike those teens we may have had the structure and guidance needed to successfully bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood.
    A local couple from Roff, Okla. recognizes this issue and is doing something about it.  Mike and Gail Priest have been providing dedicated foster care for six years.  What they have seen in this time is the desperate need for support of teens that are aging out of foster care. Their support is founded by faith and it starts with a question.  “Why age out when you can age in?”
    “Aging In” is more than a foster home.  The Priests provide a home for a range of foster, adopted and biological children of all ages.  Mike and Gail started “Aging In” for youths that have become at risk of aging out of foster care.  Their goal is to provide a Biblical foundation in a family setting on which youths can prepare their lives for adulthood.  Through modeling, discipleship,  personal mentorship, and character training the Priests equip these youths with the life skills needed to become faithful members of a productive society.  The focus and inspiration of their work is based upon the principles found in Matthew 6:33.  But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
    The Priests commented on their concerns on this issue and how they address them.  
    “The biggest need that I see is that most of the teens leaving the system don’t have any sort of foundation.  So, part of our program that we are setting up is to bring them into a home environment and create some stability as well as a sort of discipleship program along side them.  Providing a home and giving guidance only goes so far.  By providing them with spiritual direction we find that there is greater success in a positive future for these kids.  There needs to be an internal change to offer a long lasting impression,” said Gail.
    “By not having the guidance they need, most of these 18  year old kids don’t know where they are going or what they are going to do.  They can get into group homes or enroll in college and there are government programs and assistance but without any direction they usually go unused or misused.  One statistic I’ve read stated that 80% of these teens leaving foster care get in trouble with the law within a year’s time.  We bring them into the family and treat them like our own.  The biggest part is involving them in whatever we are doing, as you would do your own children.  Scripture says God setteth the solitary In families.  By us offering the spiritual path we feel it gets them going in the right direction so they will have a better chance of staying on track.”  said Mike.
    “Aging In” incorporates a program called, “The Next Step” which is a sponsorship program where youth take part in a nine week discipleship program located in Windsor, Colorado at the Ellerslie mission society.  Ellerslie specializes in helping students experience the substance of the Christian faith.  Here students  get a strong Scriptural understanding and Biblical framework which establishes a healthy life-long spiritual behavior pattern.  Recently eight Ellerslie students spent their three week break from the discipleship program at Ellerslie to volunteer their labor at Aging In.  Aging In is located at the Priest Ranch which consists of 152 acres of pasture land where the Priest family runs horses and cattle.  The ranch house is a 4,000 square foot log home which will provide living for up to three teenage foster children as well as their other children.
    The Priests have been married for 25 years and have seven biological children between them, five adopted children and six grandchildren.  In 2010 they were nominated for foster parents of the year following their adoption of a 29 year daughter.
    Mike and Gail’s desire to see lives transformed by the power of the Gospel has been met with some adversity.  Providing for the needs of a large home that will house multiple youths is an ongoing process.  Materials are still needed and there is never enough time in a day but with volunteers such as those from Ellerslie and others from the local community Aging In’s completion will become a reality. Taking in foster children benefits human life as well as society, but can be problematic as well.     
    “Some of the kids can bring in problems.  They have been through things that kids shouldn’t have to go through so naturally there is reactions from this.  Our take on this is to create a solid relationship with the Lord and then create a strong family relationship before even thinking about fostering.  You have to have a relationship with the Lord and be strong in your faith and your family to handle these problems,” Mike said.
    “By helping these teens now we save later.  If we can bring an end to this horrible cycle, we will generate responsible adults that will make better decisions in life,” Gail said.
   One study shows that every year 26,000 youths age out of foster care with over 300 in Oklahoma alone.  It stated that almost half won’t finish high school and 66% will either become homeless, jailed, or die within a year of leaving foster care at 18.  Another estimate revealed that more than 80% of all inmates were in foster care and that girls are 600% more likely to become pregnant before age 21.  These statistics although alarming are ones you might have predicted.  It’s almost as if there is a new generation of foster children generated from the time they leave the system.  Granted there is a natural number of non-foster teens that will not finish school, die or become homeless but how can one ignore this trend.  The very fact that the majority of our inmates were in foster care implies there is a problem that should be addressed.
    So what is the answer to this problematic cycle?  For the Priests it’s providing the spiritual stepping stones that create the framework of a structurally sound young adult.  Their work in comparison to the national problem at hand may seem in vain but to the lives they have enriched the Priest’s have given hope.  The stepping stones they provide are ones of change and like a ripple in a pool their change begins with a disturbance of the current state.  
    For more information about “Aging In” contact Mike or Gail priest at aging_in@yahoo.com or call Gail at 580-235-2150.   Visit http://www.ellerslie.com for information about Ellerslie Mission Society.

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