Remember your first apartment? Remember the fun and excitement selecting living room furniture, a dining set, kitchen items, sheets and towels, and a new TV? That transition is less exciting and more stressful for young people who turn 21 and age out of the foster care system. Discharge grants, funding which comes from different sources, provides these young adults with $1,800 when they leave foster care. That amount, however, often must go towards rent, a security deposit, and payments to set up utilities, leaving little to furnish an apartment.
Mary Theresa McCombe came face to face with that reality when she was a volunteer for Cardinal McCloskey Community Services in Valhalla, New York, helping a young man who was graduating from Penn State and moving into his first apartment. Even with his discharge grant, Mary Theresa realized he would have less in his first apartment than he did in his dorm room. She quickly got to work networking with friends and reaching out on social media. This effort to help one young man soon grew into the non-profit, Hearts to Homes, assisting newly independent young adults who have just aged out of foster care by providing the essentials to furnish a new home.
Hearts to Homes goes beyond providing the basics, however, allowing young people to participate in the decorating process. Through partnerships with Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Bob’s Discount Furniture, the organization has compiled a list of 60 to 70 items that young people can choose from to outfit their apartments. “That’s one of the important parts of the program,” says Mary Theresa. “They have complete choice. A lot of these kids have not had a lot of choice in their lives. When we ask for feedback some say that they appreciate that they could design their new apartment, how they pictured it to be.” When the furniture and other items arrive, Hearts to Homes volunteers wisely step back. “The last thing these kids need is someone coming in to tell them where to put their cutlery,” she says. “That should be someone they know, love, trust, and are already connected with.”
Mary Theresa received undergraduate and graduate degrees at New York University and worked as a certified public accountant at KPMG in New York. “My specialty at KPMG was in real estate and nonprofit industry,” she says. “Little did I know that it would be training me for the later stages of my life.” Mary Theresa and her husband have three adult children. She retired after her second son was born and did philanthropic work, mostly for local Catholic charities, including Cardinal McCloskey Community Services. Often Mary Theresa would donate funds to help young people. “You want to go to cosmetology school, or you want to be a mechanic? I would be able to pay to help that student get the education or tools they needed,” she explains.
Helping that Penn State student, however, gave her philanthropic efforts a new direction. Working with Cardinal McCloskey Community Services, she trademarked the name Hearts to Homes and set up a website. “We spent the next year fundraising for it and ended up with enough money for four years,” she says. In the organization’s first year, they helped six young people, and in the second, six more. “I couldn’t in good conscience fundraise when we had ample funds,” she says. “But there are kids all over NYC and Westchester with other agencies and those kids aren’t given that opportunity.”
Mary Theresa realized that they needed to offer their services to other agencies working with young adults aging out of foster care. In 2017, that led her to Catholic Guardian Services, whose many areas include working with foster children and families. Executive Director Craig Longley told Mary Theresa that one of their foster children was graduating from SUNY Buffalo and wanted to go to law school. Hearts to Homes sent a wish list to the young man in the days before Memorial Day weekend. “His apartment was done by Monday morning,” she says.
Hearts to Homes is four years old as a separate organization, five years old as a concept. The organization has now helped more than 280 young adults. “Over time we continued to expand as donations grew,” Mary Theresa explains. Hearts to Homes now works with more than 20 partner agencies that are listed on the website. “We are in the process of working our way through every agency at ACS (Administration for Children’s Services). That’s been the mandate from our board. In the long term we’ll go to Nassau, Suffolk, and Rockland Counties.”
Currently, Hearts to Homes receives ten to 12 referrals a month. Young people aging out of foster care are placed on a waiting list for housing, three-quarters of those apartments will be in New York City Housing Authority buildings. A quarter of those referred to Hearts to Homes are young men, while one-third are young women who are pregnant or already parents.
Giving is on everyone’s mind as the holidays near, but Mary Theresa notes that “demand is consistent year round.” Those wishing to donate to help a young adult decorate a first apartment can go to the registry on the Hearts to Homes website.
Photos courtesy of Hearts to Homes