WESTFIELD, NJ —  Roots & Wings, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving young people in New Jersey aging out of  foster care, hopes to begin helping youths in Union County this fall.

Joe Masterson, leadership council spokesperson for Roots & Wings – Union County (RWUC), said that the idea to bring the organization here began with a presentation on the subject at the First Congregational Church of Westfield back in 2012.

Children raised in foster care face significant challenges when they turn 18. Many have no place to live, insufficient education, few employable skills, no financial resources and no dependable relationships for guidance. According to The Westfield Foundation, in Union County approximately 100 youth become at risk annually.

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Since that presentation, a group of local volunteers began assessing the need, finding out what was being done by the government as well as private organizations and exploring different models to find something that they felt could best serve the population.

They discovered the Roots & Wings Foundation, a New Jersey-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with professional staff, trained mentors and dedicated volunteers.

Masterson said that they liked that Roots & Wings is comprehensive. It helps with things like housing, education, learning to live independently as an adult and building up their credit.

“It’s no different than raising your own kids—you want them to be happy, healthy and self-sufficient,” said Shelly Rothenberg, a Westfield resident who serves on the board of Roots & Wings.

Many teenage foster kids are used to living in a group home, said Rothenberg. They have never paid a bill, made a doctor’s appointment or shopped for groceries.

“Think dorm-like,” she explained. “Ten, 15, 20 kids. They’re given meals and a room to live in, some rules and guidance. They don’t really know the skills you need to live alone.”

Roots & Wings provides each youth with a three-person team:

1. A social worker manages the processes, meeting with the young person three to five times each week.

2. A psychologist. “The majority of kids have suffered some kind of abuse—physical or emotional,” said Rothenberg.

3. A trained volunteer mentor who meets with that youth weekly. Sometimes the mentor also acts as a tutor.

“The most confusing relationship, in the beginning, for the kids is the mentor,” said Rothenberg. “They think, ‘Why would this person do this for me if they’re not paid to do so?’

Youths in the program are expected to meet with these people, go to school, hold part-time jobs, pay their own day-to-day expenses and put money aside.

“Most kids come into the program with debt,” said Rothenberg. “They come out of the program debt-free with a savings account. They have an emergency fund and money for a security deposit.”

The average youth spends about three years with Roots & Wings before he or she is ready to live independently, although some need up to five, especially if they have no high school diploma or GED, explained Rothenberg. Most come to Roots & Wings between the ages of 18 and 21.

RWUC is now in the process of screening potential clients and hopes to place two youths in apartments in Union County this fall. The cost to run the program can run from $35,000 to $50,000 per youth per year. Beyond the social justice factor, it’s a bargain for society compared to the cost of homelessness or prison, pointed out Rothenberg.

RWUC is very close to its initial fundraising goal of $100,000, thanks to a  pledge of $40,000 by the Westfield Foundation. Because $20,000 of the pledge is a matching grant, RWUC is reaching out to the Union County community to ask for financial support.

On Oct. 15, Mulberry House in Westfield will host “A Toast to New Beginnings,” a fundraising event, from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Attendees will have the opportunity to learn more about Roots & Wings and meet its executive director, Kim Spangenberg. For more information about the event, call Susan Tomljanovic at 908-789-0009 or email stomljanovic@outlook.com.

Volunteer mentors are also wanted. There is no cost to the mentors for training.

To learn more about Roots & Wings and to make a donation, visit www.rootsandwingsnj.org. Specify “Union County” when completing the donation form.