Like so many young people who age out of the foster-care system, Yazmeen Washington found herself at age 21 all alone and ill-equipped to shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood. She had only temporary housing when she found work as a barista at Brewerytown’s the Monkey and the Elephant, eventually saving enough money to rent her own place.
Filled with hope, she began the search for an apartment. The process quickly became soul-crushing.
“I thought it would be simple, but I got rejected over five times,” says Washington, now age 22. “I wasn’t a former renter. I didn’t have built-up credit, so everyone wanted me to have a cosigner. But most of us who get out of the system don’t have a long line of family members waiting to sign for us.”
Fortunately, Washington had someone else looking out for her — Lisa Miccolis, her boss and founder of the Monkey and the Elephant (M&E), a nonprofit coffee shop, whose mission is to equip former foster kids with the resources and support they need to create successful, stable lives. The stakes for people like Washington are high: In the U.S., it’s estimated that nearly 40 percent of young people who are released from foster care either become homeless or bounce from one temporary housing situation to the next.
Miccolis reached out to a property manager she knew who was willing to help because of Washington’s affiliation with M&E. In March, Washington moved into her first self-funded apartment — a one-bedroom in Kensington.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done without Miss Lisa,” says Washington of Miccolis. “You might just be talking to her about an issue, not asking for help, and she’ll be two steps ahead of you, thinking about how she can work with you to solve the problem."
Positive outcomes like Washington’s are common at M&E, where Miccolis is on a mission to help young adults aging out of foster care manage the jarring gap between dependent care and adult life. M&E enrolls four young adults at a time (ages 18 to 22) in its transitional employment program. Participants receive a mix of paid work experience and personal and professional development classes. They’re invited to stay for up to a year. (All of M&E’s profits support the program, which is funded by 50 percent earned revenue and 50 percent contributions; donations can be made online).
“You have young people whose brains aren’t fully developed, who often have experienced trauma, and who didn’t have good role models growing up,” says Miccolis, who worked on and off in the coffee industry before launching M&E in 2015. “We want them to learn from their mistakes and help them identify the underlying root problem. Other employers simply won’t have the patience for that."
Programs like M&E’s are sorely needed, says Jennifer Pokempner, a senior attorney at the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, which offers legal and policy advocacy on behalf of youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
The discontinuation of foster services is “a very hard cutoff. It’s as if your parents said to you suddenly, ‘Goodbye, go away, you can’t come back. You can call me, but I might not pick up, and while I wish you well, my obligation to you has ended,' " explains Pokempner. “And that’s not how real family works. A lot of people at 21 need a little extra help in the transition to adulthood, whether it’s financial or moral support, or just a place to come home to during college breaks.”
In the foster-care system, says Washington, “They don’t teach you how to navigate health insurance or build credit or even make a doctor’s appointment. I was freaking out one day because I had to see a doctor, and when I called the office, they asked me for my card numbers. I had no idea what they were talking about. I felt really dependent.”
In addition to working 30 hours per week at M&E, program participants must attend half-day skill-building workshops. Every Monday, the café closes early, and Meghan Ryan, a former social worker and current M&E program coordinator, leads classes on everything from how to create a savings account to how to set up an informational interview. Fundamentals — such as the importance of being punctual — are covered, too.
“If you watch your parents get up every day and plan out their routine, you absorb some of that. If no one’s guiding you along the way, how do you learn those skills?” says Miccolis. “We have one young man here who, after three months, is still having trouble showing up to work on time. He’s not fired — we know there are a lot of layers behind what’s going on.”
Miccolis considers the opportunity for individuals to make mistakes, and to be able to learn from them without losing their job, as one of the most valuable parts of the program.
M&E alum have gone on to land jobs as managers at other cafés, mentors at organizations helping homeless youth, and beyond. Miccolis continuously sends out group emails to alert them of new job opportunities, and alum will often drop in for advice or resume help.
“They’re gaining financial literacy and setting up career goals, but beyond all of that, they acquire a support system,” says Ryan. “Like with Yaz, she’d go to apply for these apartments and have to relive over and over again the fact that she didn’t have anyone there for her. It becomes so, so, so powerful to feel like people have your back.”
Several alums have expressed interest in creating a similar operation to M&E one day, including Jackelyne Perez, 24, now a supervisor at Parliament Coffee.
“The experience helped me confirm that you don’t have to fit the foster stereotype of not going anywhere,” says Perez. “Even if I end up just becoming a foster parent, I want to help other kids see that life continues after the system, and there’s hope and a path for them.”