- HELPED AND NOW HELPING: After aging out of foster care, Ed Phillips turned to Immerse Arkansas. Today, he serves as a resident advisor for one of the nonprofit's houses for young adults.
In 2009, Ed Phillips turned 18 and left behind eight tumultuous years in Arkansas's foster care system. The state Department of Human Services offers children who "age out" of foster care the option of remaining in state care until age 21, but Phillips was more than ready to move on. Like many foster kids, he'd bounced from home to home throughout his adolescence and spent several years in institutions, from behavioral health hospitals to juvenile detention centers. When he turned 18, Phillips recalled recently, his caseworker told him that in order to receive continued services from DHS, he'd have to start college immediately after graduating high school. That just didn't seem feasible to him. "Needless to say, after all the places I got shifted around when I was in state custody, I wasn't able to receive an effective education," he said. Instead, he moved to New Jersey to live with a father he hadn't seen since age 10.
It didn't work out. His father's mental health issues led to "a lot of co-dependency," Phillips said, which led to conflicts. He'd picked up a substance abuse problem while institutionalized in Arkansas; out on his own, his addiction worsened. "I resorted to illegal, risky behaviors to fill that need," he said.
Three years later, desperate for a change, he used the last of a paycheck to buy a Greyhound bus ticket back to Little Rock and showed up at the door of his last and most stable foster placement. At 21 years old, he had nowhere else to turn. He describes the moment as "a foxhole prayer that was answered, in the sense that I felt led to come back here."
Phillips' former foster mother connected him with Immerse Arkansas, a nonprofit whose mission is to help youth who've aged out of foster care (and other young adults in crisis) by providing transitional housing and outreach services. He began meeting with the Immerse staff on a weekly basis. With the help of a 12-step program, he managed to shake his addiction. In March 2013, Phillips was asked to step into a position with Immerse as a residential assistant at one of the organization's houses for young adults. He's now been an RA for three years while taking classes at Pulaski Technical College (he hopes to eventually pursue a degree in psychology).
Immerse operates four shared homes in Little Rock — two male, two female — each with one RA and three youth, typically ages 18-22. Eric Gilmore, the nonprofit's co-founder and executive director, said RAs provide "unstructured supervision, so youth can be on their own without being on their own." They're trained by Gilmore and other Immerse staff to provide "transitional coaching," including weekly meetings, activities, cleaning inspections and more. Although they receive a small monthly stipend and rent-free housing, Phillips and the other RAs are volunteers. "It's a sacrifice. It's a commitment," Gilmore said.
Phillips said his three years as an RA have been "amazing and ... horrible. It's been challenging, and it's been easy at times." Most of his work involves teaching healthy outlets for energy and appropriate interpersonal boundaries, he said. "I have a lot of youth that I work with who haven't had a chance to establish a relationship with their family. They don't understand what's a healthy boundary, either for themselves or the people they're around."
In addition to the shared homes, Immerse also places some youths with host families — a situation similar to foster care but for individuals over the age of 18. Others are placed in apartments or dorms. Between housing and outreach, the nonprofit served around 50 youths in 2016, Gilmore estimated.
Gilmore and his wife, Kara, started Immerse after spending a period of time post-college as "house parents" in a group foster home. "It was fantastic — the best thing we ever did," he recalled. "But we quickly saw youth turning 18 and having a really hard time."
When the organization first opened its doors in 2010, things did not go well, Gilmore admitted. "We bit off more than we could chew. So, we scaled it back down. People came with different resources and we took it one youth at a time until we figured out what we wanted to do."
One lesson has been that there are many non-foster youths in the city who desperately need services: young people who are homeless, who are victims of human trafficking, who are coming out of the juvenile justice system, who have run away from home or have been kicked out by their families. "Our best guess is there are about 1,000 youth in the Little Rock, North Little Rock area that meet the criteria for the support we provide."
Immerse intends to add four more shared homes as soon as next year. But the next big step is to create a drop-in center to deliver life skills classes and provide a community space including showers, laundry, a nursery, a teaching kitchen and more. Immerse recently moved from Mosaic Church on Colonel Glenn Road, its original site, to a building on Asher Avenue that will one day house the drop-in center. Gilmore is now contemplating the organization's first capital campaign, which will likely need to raise $800,000 to $900,00. "We have the plans; we don't have any money," he said.
The group also needs volunteers: "People who can teach a class, who can cook a meal for our Tuesday night gathering. It could be mentoring, or teaching youth how to drive." Much of Immerse's work, Gilmore said, involves repairing the "relational trauma" experienced by youths, whether in the foster system or within their own families. "Trauma that happens in relationships is healed in relationships. Part of our goal is to give them safe, supportive relationships where they can learn to trust. Learn that they have value. That they can be loved, and that they can love without risking harm."
That's something Ed Phillips is trying to both teach and learn as he continues to piece together his own history. His father's parental rights were terminated in 2001 after he left his son in the home of a relative who then called DHS; the relative said Phillips' father was threatening himself and others with violence, but Phillips is skeptical. "I still don't know the whole story and don't think I'm ever going to get it," he said. His mother, who had divorced his father years earlier and was living in Missouri at the time DHS became involved, has told Phillips that she tried to gain custody of him but could not do so.
As always is true with child welfare cases, it is almost impossible to sort out the facts, because court proceedings and other records are strictly confidential. Still, Phillips says he believes DHS needs to take fewer kids into custody overall, because "sometimes you're doing more damage by removing them from a situation." While he said his DHS caseworker "had the best of intentions and was doing the best she knew how to do," he described the unhappiness of being a teenage boy with behavioral issues in a system in which foster parents can always choose to end a placement or decline a placement.
"It's similar to if you were to do something at your job. They would put the word out, 'don't hire this person.'... You get a kid who's said to be doing something that they're not. Or perhaps it's that they're expecting the kid to take on a responsibility that they're not quite ready for. Once you build that reputation, it's hard to find housing. ... It becomes their identity. And when they get into [an institution] it's only compounded."
Phillips urged more community involvement with young people in need of help. "They need more examples of what to be and what not to be ... and see what a community should look like," he said. (And when it comes to avoiding bad decisions, "the youth have to hear it from a hundred people before it means anything.") Ultimately, he hopes to help his youths be more self-sufficient, "so they can teach their kids how to do it the right way. My goal is ... giving back while you're on your way up. ... My work is more meaningful because they have the opportunity to do the same thing [and] can pass that on to somebody else. I think that's what we're trying to do here at Immerse."