MIKE SMITH was 5 years old when he met Justin Pasquariello and Vanessa Fazio. Pasquariello, then 22, had started a Boston-based mentoring program for kids in foster care, and Fazio was a college intern there. Smith, who was living in Dorchester, had been in foster care since he was three.
Smith remembers Pasquariello taking him to basketball and football games. And Smith remembers the feeling of safety around the older couple. When he was with them, nothing bad happened. He didn’t get in trouble, and nobody gave him trouble. For a kid in foster care, that was a lot. When Smith returned to his birth mother’s home at age 12, Pasquariello and Fazio kept in close touch.
“I knew Justin and Vanessa longer than I know my real parents,” Smith said. “I felt more safe with them than even with my foster parents.”
The program Pasquariello founded 20 years ago, now a nonprofit called Silver Lining Mentoring, is based on a simple principle: every child deserves a stable adult.
For many children, that adult is a parent, who cares for them not only in childhood but as they enter adulthood. A parent takes them to get a driver’s license, drops them off at college, or co-signs their first apartment lease. But for children in foster care who age out of the state system without a permanent family, the lack of a role model to smooth their path into adulthood often leads to disastrous outcomes: elevated rates of homelessness, incarceration, and unwanted pregnancies, and low rates of college completion.
Silver Lining Mentoring has developed a model of intensive volunteer mentoring that gives children, two-thirds of whom are at the age where they are transitioning into adulthood, one adult they can count on. The average mentor-mentee match at Silver Lining Mentoring lasts over three years, compared to a national average of 1.5 years for other mentoring programs. Its longest matches are the 20-year relationships that Pasquariello and Fazio have formed with Smith and another former foster child, Henry Avinger.
Three years ago, Silver Lining Mentoring opened a training institute to teach youth organizations nationwide how to implement successful foster care mentoring.
Many of the young people served by the organization live in group homes with frequent staff turnover or experience frequent moves between foster homes. “The consistent relationship with one person, that’s what kids in foster care are lacking,” said Colby Swettberg, CEO of Silver Lining Mentoring. “Young people in care don’t have a lot of reason to trust adults….We’re there to put one consistent adult in the life of each young person who comes into our care.”
Melissa MacDonnell, president of the Liberty Mutual Foundation, which has funded Silver Lining Mentoring and other programs addressing foster care and youth homelessness, said Silver Lining has become a national model. She said programs targeting foster children are vital because so many former foster kids become homeless without resources and someone to guide them. “It’s such a hidden population and such a hidden issue,” MacDonnell said.
Pasquariello, whose father died when he was young, himself bounced between his birth mother, family, friends, and foster care until he was adopted at age nine, an open adoption that let him maintain a relationship with his birth mother. Pasquariello said he was fortunate to have a lot of strong relationships – with his birth mother, his adoptive family, and other relatives, including a sister. He graduated from Arlington High School and got into Harvard. When he was taking a class on organizing his senior year, his background in foster care inspired him to do something related to foster care. “What I found is a real need for mentoring for youth in care,” he said.
Pasquariello started a group mentoring program for youth in foster care, which later developed into Silver Lining Mentoring. He said his personal history lets him connect with his mentees over shared experiences – things like having a relationship with a birth parent while in care.
Avinger and Smith, who were once in the same foster home, were among the first kids who joined Pasquariello’s early mentoring program.
Avinger, who was 10 at the time, had been in foster care since age 3, in multiple homes. He says his therapist found the mentoring program for him as a way to help him with antisocial tendencies.
Avinger had already been through multiple Department of Children and Families caseworkers and foster parents. He would continue bouncing around the foster care system for the rest of his youth. Pasquariello, he says, was different. He didn’t leave. “Justin was one of the few adults that showed that he was there for me and he wanted to help me grow,” Avinger said. “It brought comfort and stability to someone who wasn’t too used to having much stability.”
In the early days, Pasquariello recalled, they would get together as a foursome – the two mentors and the two boys. They would meet at the organization’s Boston office and play games like Family Feud. They would get pizza or go to a movie. They went to the aquarium and the Museum of Science, and used donated tickets to attend baseball games at Fenway Park or basketball games.
As the boys got older, Avinger moved around to placements in Mattapan, Somerville, and Marlborough. Smith moved back with his birth mom. They generally met with their mentors separately.
Avinger said he understood his mentors’ commitment when he was around 15 and moved to Marlborough. Pasquariello and Fazio, living in Boston, didn’t have a car. So they would rent a Zipcar and drive to meet Avinger and go to a movie or dinner. “Seeing them make the…drive out when they didn’t have to, just to have an hour or two to hang out with me, just to make sure life was going well for me and see if there was anything they could do, that showed a lot,” Avinger said.
A few years after they met at the mentoring program, Pasquariello and Fazio started dating, and in 2008, they got married. They now have two kids, ages 7 and 4. Pasquariello, 43, now works as executive director of East Boston Social Centers, a nonprofit that runs educational, recreational, and social programming for Boston youth and older adults. Fazio, 41, graduated from law school and is associate director of business affairs for advertising agency MullenLowe US.
Fazio said her mentoring relationships were the first committed relationships and responsibilities she took on as a young adult. Sharing those relationships with Pasquariello helped the two of them grow in their personal relationship, as partners and parents, since they had to work together and identify each other’s strengths as they figured out the best way to support their mentees.
“We grew up with them,” Fazio said. “When we first started group mentoring, it was almost like we were, not playmates since we were older and responsible, but we just did stuff that was fun for everybody. As their interests and needs changed and got a little more complicated, we were able to step in and talk to them about job searches and housing and college applications.” They took the boys shopping and helped Avinger move.
Avinger said Pasquariello was like an older sibling or an uncle, there to talk about his interests or hobbies, to suggest a book, or help him develop life goals. Fazio, he said, was “that protective aunt that looked out for your best interests.”
Smith calls them “second parents.”
Over time, Silver Lining Mentoring developed into a successful one-on-one mentorship program. Swettberg, the agency CEO, said volunteer mentors are carefully screened and rigorously trained. They learn about life in the foster care system, how to use a trauma-informed lens to connect with youth, how to set and respect boundaries, how to recognize power and privilege, and how to address issues around race and identity. The program is focused narrowly on kids in foster care, so it can provide the services they need, while understanding their experiences and their language. It has a $2.8 million budget, funded almost entirely by philanthropy, and serves over 250 Boston-area youth in foster care each year.
Silver Lining Mentoring employs program coordinators, who check in with mentors and are a resource for mentors and mentees. The program coordinator can connect youth with resources, like help finding mental health care, housing, or employment supports.
As Pasquariello grew busier with fatherhood and his job at East Boston Social Centers, Avinger said he would sometimes go to his mentor and sometimes turn to Silver Lining Mentoring directly. They helped him to request tax forms and file taxes. He took a class on life skills, which taught him how to sign a lease, avoid eviction, and understand his rights as a tenant.
In Massachusetts, according to the Department of Children and Families, there were 645 children who aged out of DCF care in fiscal year 2021 without having either been reunified with their family or adopted.
Lesli Suggs, president and CEO of the Home for Little Wanderers, a nonprofit that runs residential and other programs for DCF-involved youth, said having a stable adult is critical for kids leaving foster care. “What we know about transition-age youth is if they transition out of care without a permanent adult who cares about them, loves them, provides a place to live, is an important person who guides them through early adulthood, the outcomes are very poor,” Suggs said.
Nationally, 42 percent of foster youth enroll in college but 36 percent of them drop out within two years. Between 2014 and 2018, according to statistics from the Children’s Bureau of the federal Administration for Children and Families, 25 percent of 21-year-olds transitioning out of care in Massachusetts had experienced homelessness, 15 percent had been incarcerated, and 17 percent had children. Rates of substance use and unemployment were high. A report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation on the 20,000 kids who age out of foster care each year in the US showed similar outcomes.
Suggs, who is not involved with Silver Lining Mentoring, said the two main things that can help this population succeed are housing and a mentor. She said all 18 or 19-year-olds need help with life skills – a person to co-sign a lease or offer advice on whether to buy a car or take a job. “Even for the most put together and motivated and driven young people, there are things they’re just not experienced handling,” Suggs said. Foster children almost always have the additional burden of trauma in their background.
Suggs said the system can provide practical support with things like finding housing or a job, but young adults also need emotional support. “It’s that unconditional love and support with someone who gets you, who has your back and calls you in the middle of the day to see how your day went,” Suggs said. “Those things are important to anybody but certainly to young people that are moving out into adulthood.”
In Massachusetts, DCF provides services to young adults who opt to receive them until age 23. According to DCF, 75 percent of kids who aged out in fiscal 2021 chose to continue receiving services, and 2,766 young adults between ages 18 and 23 received some DCF services. This can include placement in a foster family, group home, or independent living apartment, as well as college preparation, teen parenting help, or other support services.
According to a Silver Lining Mentoring survey of youth done a few years ago, 76 percent of its youth are employed compared to 43 percent of their peers who aged out of foster care nationwide. More recent statistics found that among youth who have been in a Silver Lining Mentoring relationship for at least one year, 98 percent of those 17 and older are in the process of or have obtained a high school diploma or equivalent, compared to 70 percent of youth in care nationally. Nearly half (49 percent) of these youth are in the process of or have earned a secondary degree or employment credential, compared to 2 percent of youth in care nationally.
Pasquariello said mentoring provided him with “this opportunity to have special people in our lives” and to learn from both of the young men he’s stayed connected to. It has also helped him develop Silver Lining Mentoring, where he stayed connected as a board member after stepping down from a staff role. “We’ve been able to see both what the opportunities are and also how challenging the system can be particularly for these young men being in the child welfare system,” Pasquariello said.
Today, Avinger, 30, lives in Worcester and works in security. He has a GED and is thinking about continuing his education.
Smith is 26 with a GED. He works as a chef at Harvard and Lesley universities.
The two young men still regard the older couple as their mentors. They talk. They meet up, usually at a restaurant. During the COVID pandemic, they stayed in touch through calls and FaceTime.
“I think of them more like family,” Fazio said.