New York Jets running back Ty Montgomery, TV actor Santino Fontana from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and a host of Broadway’s biggest stars lit up the stage last Thursday at Voices for the Voiceless, a musical benefit celebrating the 25th anniversary of nonprofit You Gotta Believe. The organization works to find adoptive families for older youth in foster care — who often have the hardest time finding a forever home — by strengthening their connections with supportive adults they already know.
“When we started, our hope was that we’d go out of business,” said Mary Keane, who leads You Gotta Believe and is herself an adoptive parent of 13. “Unfortunately, we are still needed because it hasn’t gotten much better for older youth in care.”
In New York, 271 of the youth who aged out of foster care in 2017 reported that they did not have a connection to a single caring adult. In an effort to change that, You Gotta Believe’s caseworkers spend time getting to know older youth and looking for adults in their orbit — extended family, coaches, neighbors, church friends. They also invite youth in care to speak about their experiences and dreams at recruitment events for foster parents.
Originally conceived to cut the foster care-to-homelessness pipeline, the organization was seen as innovative — debunking the idea that child welfare systems should settle for placing children with volunteer strangers for foster parents.
“I had a couple experiences — thank God it wasn’t many — where the kid didn’t like the first family I placed them with. One kid didn’t like the second family I placed with them. I absolutely refused to send them back to a congregate care facility,” said Pat O’Brien, founder of the organization and a board member of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “So I’d simply go to the kid and I’d go, ‘Alright. You don’t like who I’m finding for ya — who do you want?’”
“Sometimes they would say a relative. Other times they’d say somebody they knew, whether it was on their block or on their foster parent’s block, or their school. Every kid had somebody.”
O’Brien was soon traveling the country to teach best practices to other cities. He left You Gotta Believe in 2012 and now leads the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York. Keane took over as the interim leader of You Gotta Believe in 2017; the organization is currently seeking a new executive director.
Among the high-profile guests in the audience last week were David Hansell, commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, and City Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the General Welfare Committee.
The musical medley was emceed by radio host Seth Rudetsky, who explained that his husband James Wesley started the process of adopting his young niece Julie shortly before the two started dating. At the event, Wesley also shared concerns about a proposed federal rule that would allow foster and adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ couples.
Ty Montgomery took the stage with his effervescent mother Lisa, who said it was her son’s desire for siblings that led her, a single mom, to foster 17 boys and teens who became his brothers. The pair chose Whitney Houston’s “My Love is Your Love,” to be performed by Anika Larsen, who starred in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and is one of 10 biological and adopted siblings.
“Everybody needs a mom or dad,” said Lisa Montgomery before joining Larsen in song. “Mentors are great from 9 to 5, but a freshman in college is not calling a mentor at 2 in the morning — he needs a mama, and that’s me.”
The final speaker of the night was Ta’Nika Gibson, a singer and actress who recently made her Broadway debut in “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.”
Gibson revealed that she was born a ward of the state of Massachusetts and, at age 4, adopted into a home where she suffered abuse and neglect. She won a scholarship to the prestigious MacDuffie School, and after her mother died, the school’s headmistress became her guardian. She moved into the mansion on campus. Gibson later enrolled at NYU with a full scholarship, and, on her first visit home for Christmas, the new family began planning her adoption.
Gibson selected the “Wicked” song “For Good” to be sung by Tony-winner Kelli O’Hara and Carrie Manolakos, who toured in the lead role of Elphaba.
“‘For Good’ spoke to me because I understood what it was like to feel less than, to feel like an other,” Gibson said. “Seeing that show changed my life forever.”
To close the show, Gibson herself took the stage with original “Ragtime” cast member Brian Stokes Mitchell to perform “Wheels of a Dream” from the same show. They received a standing ovation.
Megan Conn is a reporter in New York for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.