Guantanamo Bay visit inspires UT law student to start foster care nonprofitWritten by Ashley McMahon | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Imagine sitting in a humid courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 50 yards away from the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Evan Matheney experienced this firsthand and the “intense” encounter inspired him to create his own nonprofit, Dream Again Ohio, to help foster kids successfully transition to independence.
Before heading down to Cuba as an advocate for the University of Toledo during the 9/11 trials, Matheney was in law school with a focus in juvenile law. He was also a member of the Lucas County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program. As a CASA, Matheney advocated for abused and neglected children when they came into the court system.
Mom and dad have their attorneys, grandma and grandpa have their attorneys and the CASA is the only person in the room that’s a voice for just the child, Matheney explained.
“Looking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the face, I just had this realization that if they can do that much evil in the world with that type of passion, then assuredly the opposite has to be true,” Matheney said. “We can do that much good if we just have that type of passion for whatever we’re working toward.”
“That was my big catalyst,” he said. “I had to go home and do something about this problem. At the time I had a CASA case and I couldn’t imagine my CASA kid aging out of the foster care system and being homeless.”
Matheney’s experience with CASA instilled in him a passion for assisting children in need, especially those in the foster system. When he arrived home from Cuba, he left his studies and started Dream Again Ohio.
“I dropped out of law school to work on this nonprofit because it became so successful,” he said. He also serves as Lucas County CASA’s emancipation specialist.
Dream Again Ohio helps foster youth find housing and subsidizes their rent. The youth who age out of the foster system receive assistance from the organization by agreeing to participate in its life skills programming. Essentially, this program teaches the young adults how to prepare for the responsibilities that come with living independently, Matheney said.
According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, 20,000 young adults age out of the American foster system each year, with 1,000 of them living in Ohio. The statistics are daunting for those who age out of the system. Twenty-two percent become homeless within two years, 25 percent will become involved in crime and 50 percent of women experience early pregnancy.
“When kids age out of the foster care system, they’re either 18 or graduating high school, so it’s like, ‘Here’s your stuff, get out,’” Matheney said. “We’re their support system because they don’t have a family.”
However, Julie Malkin, public information officer for Lucas County Children Services (LCCS), the agency responsible for Lucas County youth in foster care, said the statistics are not representative of the situation in Lucas County. She said LCCS offers post-emancipation services to foster youth between the ages of 18 and 21 where caseworkers assist youth with obtaining housing, continuing their education and finding steady employment. Before emancipation, Lucas County teens are linked with independent living caseworkers who work with them on self-care, budgeting, cooking and other skills, she said. Youth are also encouraged to stay with their foster families past age 18 if they are enrolled in high school, college or a GED program.
Matheney acknowledged LCCS is “on the leading edge” and Lucas County “does a much better job than 90 percent of counties out there,” but said there is still need in many Northwest Ohio counties and with youth served by some private adoption agencies.
Dream Again Ohio is in the process of obtaining its 501(c)3 status. In the meantime, the organization is sponsored by an Elmore church.
“They accept donations on our behalf and oversee use of the funds,” Matheney said.Since leaving law school, Matheney is working toward his master’s degree in clinical counseling from Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay. He has partnered with several licensed professional counselors, who work with the youth, he said.
Matheney urged the community to get involved.
“If not you, then who? And if not now when?” he said.
For more information, visit facebook.com/dreamagainohio.