Like many 21-year-olds in Greater Boston, twin sisters Jhovanie and Johanne are thinking about their futures. Jhovanie wants to get a degree in nursing to fulfill a dream she’s had since she was a young girl.
“When my grandma was sick, I would help her and I realized that that’s what I really love doing,” she says. “If I was a nurse, I would treat every patient like they were my own family.”
Johanne’s jobs in child care centers caring for very young children has shaped her desire to become a social worker and help children with disabilities. She’s also an artist who shares her poetry and photographs on Instagram and TikTok.
As they contemplate these futures, the sisters have been getting on with the business of living independently. They recently signed a lease for an apartment in the Boston area, paying for the deposit and first and last month’s rent with money saved over the past two years from full-time work in a series of jobs in child care (Johanne), hospitality (Jhovanie) and restaurants (both sisters).
Unlike most 21-year olds who learn to live on their own with the support of parents and other family members, Jhovanie and Johanne’s main sources of support as they’ve made this transition have been each other — and HopeWell.
“We are the only people that really have each other’s back,” said Jhovanie.
This is the reality for many young people who “age out” of the foster care system — more than 25,000 across the U.S. each year — as Johanne and Jhovanie did when they were 19. Lacking the consistent support of family to guide them in developing the skills of independent living, teens who age out of foster care often experience homelessness, unemployment, and poverty. The National Foster Youth Institute estimates one in every four young people who are aging out of foster care will experience homelessness within four year. About half have chronic health conditions like asthma, post-traumatic stress, malnutrition, and dental decay and up to one-third lack health insurance. Fewer than 5 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree.
Johanne and Jhovanie put themselves on a path to beat those long odds by taking advantage of HopeWell’s My First Place™ when a social worker recommended the program to them. My First Place™ is a housing-first education and employment program that supports young people aging out of foster care as they transition into adulthood.
For Johanne, My First Place™ made her feel “you’re not by yourself, you’re not alone, you have that support behind you.” She credited the program for creating a space “to speak about what issues you have” — whether they are personal issues, or programmatic problems like roommate incompatibility.
Jhovanie said that My First Place™ “taught me how to be more independent” by helping her learn “to budget, how to save, how to solve my problems head on.” She added that the program has been so helpful that it’s the reason why she decided to share her story: “I feel like other people who might be wondering if they should come to My First Place™, if they read this and hear about our story, they’re going to be like, ‘You know what, this is where I belong.’”
The nationally-recognized program was developed nearly 20 years ago by the California-based organization First Place for Youth and has a strong record of supporting youth aging out of foster care at a pivotal time in their lives. HopeWell’s program works with about 30 of the young adults who annually age out of care in Massachusetts, providing participants with rent-free housing in shared apartments and the support of a Youth Advocate, an Education and Employment Specialist, and a Housing Specialist that coach them through identifying, planning for, and working toward achieving their individual long-term goals in education, employment, housing, and healthy living.
Johanne and Jhovanie entered the program in 2019, after spending two years in foster care. Born in Haiti, their mother passed away during childbirth and the sisters were placed in a local orphanage. They were adopted around the age of five by Haitian-American parents who brought them to the U.S. At 16, the sisters disclosed that their adoptive father had been abusing them for many years. They entered foster care and stayed with one family for two years . They maintain a close relationship with their former foster mother, who is “like a second mother to us,” Jhovanie said.
Their adoptive mother, to whom Johanne and Jhovanie remained loyal and loving, passed away shortly after they entered My First Place™. Jhovanie recalled how quickly HopeWell staff turned up to lend their support after Jhovanie called Johanne at work and broke the news.
“Right away my social worker came and picked us up,” said Jhovanie. “I did not want to go. I literally just wanted to sit home and cry. But HopeWell found out and they made arrangements for people to come and support us at the funeral and everything.”
During their two years with My First Place™, Johanne and Jhovanie graduated from high school, and maintained employment through which they saved thousands of dollars ($2,540 in Johanne’s case and $3,140 in Jhovanie’s) for their deposit and first and last month’s rent on their new apartment, although each said that they wish they had saved more.
Jhovanie acknowledged that, like most young adults, she initially resisted saving money in part because at age 19 she wasn’t as worried about the future as she was about “getting new clothes and stuff.” She also didn’t much appreciate prodding from her Youth Advocate to save more. As that first year wore on, though, she realized the wisdom in saving as much money as possible.
“I realized that as I got older, there’s nobody really here that’s going to be helping us after we’re done with this program because I don’t talk to my father, my mom passed away, so it’s only me and my sister,” said Jhovanie. “So it was like, we really have to get on it, make sure everything is good, and make sure that we have a path that we’re actually going to follow.”
Though Johanne and Jhovanie have thus far defied the long odds, they know that challenges lie ahead. Johanne, for example, is ambivalent about pursuing higher education. “There are times when I want to do it and there are times when it’s very discouraging,” she said. “I feel like it’s more discouraging now that I don’t really have a support system when it comes to family. I can’t say I don’t have a support system at all, because when it comes to HopeWell, I do. I think it’s just more discouraging when you don’t have family of your own who are motivating you.”
That’s one reason why the sisters have agreed to continue to work with My First Place™ staff for a period of time even after they move into their own apartment and are no longer under the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF).
“We want to see them succeed and we want to make sure that they are set up. Even once they are out of DCF and that is over, that doesn’t mean our door shuts,” said Beccah Tibert, LSW, My First Place™ Program Director. “So anytime they would need help with accessing DCF funding, completing school or college paperwork, they can still come back even though they’re not being funded through DCF.”
Knowing that help is available and that it’s coming from a source outside of the state’s child welfare system is a “very great way of making a person feel like they’re wanted,” said Jhovanie. “I feel like that option is a very great one to have.”