San Antonio nonprofit THRU Project is entering a new era of leadership, partnership and growth in its mission to bridge the critical gap between foster care and independent adulthood through mentoring and support services.
THRU Project co-founder Elaine Andries Hartle has retired as CEO of the grassroots effort that has become a model mentoring program for a forgotten population of young adults — foster children who have aged out of state care.
Her successor is former Hemisfair Conservancy Development Director Courtney Laverty, who is merging her fundraising expertise with her passion for helping these youth. She said her vision as CEO is to increase diversity of its revenue streams, expand community support in both donations and volunteerism, and increase staff to meet the demand for programs, especially mentoring.
“Mentoring is at the core of everything we do,” Laverty said. “It’s the heart of THRU Project. We know that when foster youth have a trusted and consistent person in their life, it can make all the difference between achieving independence or facing heartbreaking odds. Mentoring is the foundation that supports all the programs we offer.”
THRU Project began as a mother’s quest for resources for her two foster sons before they aged out of care at age 18. Realizing the need for transitional services, Hartle founded the mentorship program in 2011 after repeatedly asking the same question:
What happens to foster children after they age out?
The statistics were shocking. Former foster youth have the highest risk factors for homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, unplanned pregnancy and incarceration. While homeless, they are easy prey for human trafficking and violent crime. They struggle with mental illnesses, abandonment issues, post-traumatic stress and hopelessness.
They have no one to turn to for help.
“One of the biggest barriers was that they didn’t have a single trusted adult in their life when they left foster care. And so I thought, well, we know mentoring works,” Hartle said. “It’s not expensive. Why are we not doing this? I could not find another program dedicated to that.”
She partnered with Steve O’Donnell, a San Antonio businessman and former foster child who funded the program for the first six months. Ten youth joined that first year and now THRU Project provides mentors, cell phones, bus passes, life skills classes, housing and employment opportunities for 150 youth in greater San Antonio. To date, it has helped more than 750 young adults.
Hartle spoke to everyone she could about THRU Project but struggled to explain the challenges these youth face to potential volunteers and donors.
“When I started talking to people about it, they would say, ‘Oh, I never really thought about what happens to them after they turn 18.’ No one knew,” she said. “So it was really just creating an awareness in the beginning. It’s kind of the dirty little secret that kids don’t get adopted after age six or seven. … So what happens to them when they grow up in a system where the state is not a good parent? So much of it was trying to get people to understand the trauma they went through, what their life had been like and that they’re so completely unprepared for life on their own.”
With the mentoring program in place, Hartle noticed how the lack of transportation and communication hindered their progress.
“How do we help these kids get jobs if they can’t get to the jobs? We help them stay in school, but they can’t get to school. So the bus pass program came from that. And then we kept losing touch with these kids. If they had a cell phone and couldn’t afford it after a couple of months, then their number would change. So their case managers can’t get a hold of them, and the resources can’t reach them. You can’t get a job without a steady phone number,” she said.
THRU Project worked with VIA Metropolitan Transit to give youth free bus passes and created a cell phone program to provide them with phones and monthly service plans.
Hartle said she just trusted the right people would step up to volunteer or donate to these programs. “It really has been the combination of people who have come together, from board members and staff to other organizations we work with. Nobody does it by themselves. It takes all these different elements to create what we’ve built. It took everybody’s voice.”
Teaching practical skills
THRU Project offers basic life skills these youth need, such as budgeting, grocery shopping, cooking or how to make an appointment with a doctor and get help from social services. Foster youth are vulnerable to predatory practices, such as human trafficking or quickie loans that leaves them in debt and afraid.
“There are too many people waiting to harm them,” Hartle said.
Life Skills classes help steer them away from predators and others who would take advantage of them. These classes, as well as advice and reassurance from their mentors, are steps toward becoming autonomous, she explained.
Even when their lives seem on track, buried childhood traumas and suppressed grief can arise and thwart their progress.
“When their life becomes quiet, when they’re not in survival mode all the time, that’s when their trauma really comes to them,” Hartle said. “They’ve been so busy surviving that they don’t deal with their trauma. And now all their anxieties and depression start to bubble up. This is where we’re starting to see kids, and it’s time for therapy now. They’ve slowed down enough to unfortunately think about their life and the loss of their family. That can be a very big grief.”
The next step
The biggest gap for aged-out foster youth — safe and stable housing — loomed like an impossible ascent.
“If you don’t know where you’re sleeping tonight, it’s really difficult to change your life. It’s almost impossible,” Hartle said. “We had a plan in place, but I really didn’t know if we would ever find funding for the pilot program and have it become a success.”
THRU Project took a leap of faith in 2018 when it received a grant to launch its Next Step Housing Program. The ambitious pilot program was created to house up to 10 former foster youth in apartments for one year, rent free, with stringent requirements and hard commitment. The number of youth active in this program varies with six currently housed.
Hartle said they learn how keeping a job, paying their bills, and saving money builds the foundation for their transition to independence. For college students whose state aid halts at age 21, it allows them to stay in school knowing they have a safe place to live and study. It also offers much needed stability for young mothers who have lost — or are at risk of losing — their own children.
“To see them graduate from the program with savings and paying for their own apartment when a year ago they were living in their car, that’s something we could all be really proud of. We are part of that,” Hartle said.
Their task, however, was to make the program sustainable. Hartle said the investment of about $15,000 per youth seems expensive, but it is far less than the cost of welfare, incarceration or generational foster care for children of single mothers.
“There is very good chance, if you can’t take care of your children, that they’re probably going to be in foster care,” Hartle said. “And we’ve had so many of our youth who have lost their kids to foster care. So to see this little baby is going to have a completely different start, a different life, is impactful. They have to break that cycle.”
In July 2021, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services contracted THRU Project to house 10 young adults who choose to stay in extended foster care. This Supervised Independent Living Program adds a new layer of case management and expense. The state covers the cost of rent, utilities and groceries, but not THRU Project staff’s collaboration in case management.
The next chapter
In September 2021, Hartle turned over the reins to the new CEO to take THRU Project to the next level. Laverty brings a strong background in cultivating community relationships, fundraising, grant writing and leadership.
She also has a passion for foster children that began while working for a CASA program serving abused and neglected children in the Chicago suburbs.
“That was my first experience with the foster care system and the youth who were depending upon it for protection,” Laverty said. “I spent 10 years with that organization and witnessed heartbreak and frustration among foster youth and the people trying to serve them. But more importantly, I learned that one person can truly change the course of a young person’s life.”
There were more than 30,000 children in the Texas foster care system last year, including 5,000 in San Antonio, so Laverty says expansion is imperative.
“My goal is to grow our program so that we can serve not only every one of those foster youths, but any former foster youth living in our community,” she said. “This can only happen with more financial resources so we can grow our small staff and broaden our reach while simultaneously building community awareness among potential mentors. We also need to increase awareness among youth in foster care who may not be familiar with our programs.
“A second, equally important goal shared by our board and staff is to increase the number of young adults we’re able to serve through our housing programs. Right now, we’re able to house 20 individuals in affordable apartments, but the demand is exponentially higher than that. Young adults who have grown up in foster care are so eager to experience the stability of having their own home,” Laverty said. “No longer worrying about a place to live gives them the freedom and the energy to focus on other important goals, such as completing their education or building a career.”
She plans to find more housing units located across the city, so students still in high school can remain at their current school. “High school is tough enough on its own, especially for youth who’ve already been through traumatic experiences. So, the last thing we want to do is move these youth to apartments on the opposite side of the city,” she explained. “We’re hoping to build relationships with property managers who would be willing to partner with us and designate some of their inventory specifically for THRU Project young adults.”
Next Step includes a year’s rent, furnishings and case management. THRU staff visit these youth twice a month to keep them on track and make sure their needs are met. The nonprofit’s budget will need to grow to meet increased demand.
Laverty said the program’s next chapter will require strengthening policies and creating partnerships with other nonprofits, training staff, and building a board of directors that represents the community in diversity and expertise. She will continue sharing THRU Project’s story with local leaders and philanthropists.
Laverty said she also will make mental health a priority by partnering with the San Antonio Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to bridge the gap in care. NAMI will be sponsoring two support groups — one for the youth and one for their mentors.
“COVID really shined a light on the mental health challenges our youth are facing because it was so isolating for them, and those social connections are so important,” she said. “In addition to these support groups, we’re starting to learn about other organizations in the San Antonio community and looking for ways we can partner with them to offer wrap-around services for our youth. It has to be affordable and reliable, and the people we partner with have to use trauma-informed care in their approach.”
Laverty also wants to focus on “opportunity youth” who are not working or going to school. Currently 41% of the youth ages 18 and older are unemployed. In a new program called THRU Works, THRU Project is networking with local businesses offering job opportunities.
Nationwide, only 54% of foster youth graduate high school and a minuscule 3% graduate college, despite having tuition assistance. THRU Project high school students are more successful: 90% have graduated or earned their GED. Although 23% have gone on to college, still only 3% have earned a degree.
The odds of educational success can depend on a foster child’s experience in state care. On average, a foster child spends nearly eight years in the system with about eight home placements.
“It’s our goal to sit down with that group of young men and women and figure out what challenges are getting in the way of them pursuing either their education or their career and then doing what we can to break down those barriers so they can achieve a healthy, independent life,” she said.
Laverty adds that mentors can be positive role models by explaining what opportunities exist for these youth to break the cycles of unemployment, poverty, toxic relationships, and abuse.
“If you have the encouragement and support to be able to focus on your education or gain skills to build a career, if you maintain healthy connections in your social network and take care of your mental health, there is no limit to what you can accomplish,” she said.
For more information about THRU Project or to become a mentor for former foster youth, go to www.thruproject.org.