A place at the Table: How the Open Table Model is opening doors for CLE's foster care youth

When Ebony Naylor received her cosmetology license two years ago, she figured she’d mark the achievement by herself. The eight women who had mentored her for a year had other ideas.

“We were just in our normal meeting room, [but] they surprised me and [we] celebrated,” she says.

Naylor and her mentors came together through the Community of Hope, a nonprofit that helps youth who have aged out of the foster care system. From its office near Cleveland State University on Euclid Avenue, Community of Hope works to surround young adults with networks that can guide them toward successful, independent lives.

It’s a much-needed service in Cleveland, where the number of emancipated children has risen from 103 in 2017 to 122 in 2018. 

Cheryl Miller and Ebony NaylorA place at the table

Community of Hope connects mentees and mentors using the Open Table model, which grew out of experiences at a homeless shelter in Paradise Valley, Ariz. As volunteers got to know a shelter client named Ernie, they started helping him. Ernie had already created a plan for his life—the volunteers used their collective knowledge and networks to help him implement it.

“We gave Ernie who we knew and what we knew. Ernie gave us who he was,” says Open Table founder and CEO Jonathan Katov.

Here in Cuyahoga County, Amber Donovan has directed Open Table programs for five years. She originally conducted the program from YWCA of Cleveland, but launched Community of Hope when the program grew so large that it needed to stand on its own, she says.

Presently, 370 volunteers are involved in 31 tables. Each table consists of six to eight adults, embracing one young person. All participants must pass background tests before participating.

“Open Table is a broad model, but I wanted it to be specific around young people,” Donovan says. “I liked the idea of connecting young people who didn’t have a lot of networks or people in their lives to people who do.”

Community of Hope/Open Table

A source of Hope

Donovan has now launched a new program that she calls the “Hope Program.” In addition to the large group, aka the "table," young adults have a more intimate connection with two or three mentors. The change is a better strategy for addressing some of the traumas that lead mentees into foster care, Donovan says.

“[Open Table] was modeled on a business approach. We’ve used it for five years, but we feel there are some additional things we can provide [for] the traumas they’ve been through,” she says.

Community of Hope/Open TableAs part of the Hope Program requirements, both young adult mentees and adult volunteers must first complete six hours of training. When they do meet, the young adults direct the sessions. Topics include building trust and recognizing healthy relationships. The current participants build a toolkit of goals for their year of meetings, including learning to drive, budgeting, and creating a web portfolio for their art.

“Some groups have had book discussions,” Donovan says. “[In] one group, the young lady was having an issue around boundaries. And the group was like, ‘We know of a great book called Boundaries. Why don’t we all read it and talk about it?’ It was pretty life-changing.”

What hasn’t changed is the emphasis on connection and trust. That trust is why Cheryl Miller has been volunteering for two years here in Cleveland. She served on two tables, including Naylor’s.

“When you give money to an organization, you don’t know where it goes. You can’t feel the
touch,” says Miller, who volunteers through the National Council of Jewish Women/Cleveland.
“Yes, there are people that need our help, but you do more good when you focus on one person and get them from point A to point B.”

A launching pad for success

Getting from point A to point B is especially crucial for young adults (ages 18 to 21) who have come from foster homes. Many have grown up without stable networks and find themselves on their own with little emotional or financial support.

“We have young people at 18, 19, 20 [years old] who are not the best prepared for paying bills or holding down a job. There are many life skills that take a long time [to learn],” Donovan says.

Last year, 122 young adults were emancipated from foster care, according to Children and Family Services of Cuyahoga County.

Once these youth turn 18, they and their guardians no longer receive financial support, but Donovan says they are eligible for temporary residences from the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and the YWCA of Greater Cleveland, which run transitional housing programs. This support is key, as 40 to 50 percent of foster care youths become homeless within 18 months of emancipation, according to Fostering Change

However, difficulties persist when it comes to crucial steps to independence, such as getting a job or a driver’s license. These steps can be compounded by the multiple surnames/ and/or addresses many foster children have that make it hard to get proper identification.

Miller’s two mentees opened her eyes to these unique challenges. “They needed someone to straighten out legal issues,” she says. “They had so many names because of the way they were bounced around, none of their identifications matched.”

But not all help is so bureaucratic. When Naylor prepped for her cosmetology state board exams, her table members were right there studying with her and administering mock tests.

After she passed, one of her mentors mined their contacts to help Naylor find a salon to launch her career. She now works as an independent cosmetologist and as a front desk receptionist at the YWCA .

But most importantly, Naylor’s table listened. Says Naylor, “Once we did open up that circle of trust, they were definitely an outlet that I could go and talk to.”

CLE Means We: Calls to Action
Three things you can do to advance equity and inclusion after reading this article
  • Learn how to volunteer for Community of Hope by attending the upcoming informational meeting on June 6 from 6 to 7 p.m. More info here.
  • Donate and help Community of Hope continue to grow and serve more youth aging out of the foster care system in Cuyahoga County.
  • Find out more about how to become a foster or adoptive parent in Cleveland.

This article is part of our "CLE Means We: Advancing Equity & Inclusion in Cleveland" dedicated series, presented in partnership with Jumpstart, Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership/The Commission on Economic Inclusion, YWCA of Greater Cleveland, and the Fund for Our Economic Future.

Read more articles by Afi Scruggs.

Afi Scruggs is a local freelancer. Her diverse body of work spans more than 30 years and has appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the New Yorker, Cleveland Magazine, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution among many others. Visit her page for more information.