Phoenix-based OCJ Kids has launched a “foster phone” program to help aged-out foster youth navigate early adulthood. The nonprofit, founded and operated by Gary P. Webb, the first AG U.S. missionary chaplain to the foster care system, in May started providing former foster youths with a free phone and up to a year of free talk, text, and data — provided they continue to call their assigned OCJ Kids mentors. This allows mentors to check the young adults’ progress in obtaining housing, transportation, and a support community — all essential elements of making a successful transition, according to Webb.
“Kids are calling in at an unbelievable rate,” says Webb, 57. “We used to have three to five kids a year call in and check in with us, and now we’ve got 40 to 50 kids per month calling in. That number is just going to continue to grow as we give out cellphones.”
T-Mobile agreed to provide free cellphones for aged-out foster youth across the nation and charge the ministry a discounted rate for phone plans.
The inspiration for the program came after years of seeing kids leave the foster care system, drop off the radar, and too often end up living on the streets or in prison. Webb says that without an adult mentor, just over two-thirds of aged-out foster youth nationwide become homeless or are incarcerated within a year.
“We built relationships with some of these kids, but when they aged out we completely lost track of them,” Webb says. “We weren’t able to help them continue their journey.”
Free pizza proved too weak of an incentive to keep young adults calling their OCJ Kids mentors. Free phones and phone plans are proving much more effective.
One young man had been staying with his girlfriend’s family when they lost their home. Then he began living in his car at a park. His government caseworker needed a reliable way to communicate with him, and a co-worker mentioned OCJ Kids, which stands for Opportunity, Community and Justice for Kids. The caseworker talked to the ministry, and the next day her client received a transition suitcase from OCJ Kids containing a phone and six months of free talk, text, and data.
Webb says the ministry expects participants to be self-sufficient enough to pay for their own plan starting at around six months. When they are ready, T-Mobile transfers the phone to the individual’s account.
Gillian, 18, moved from Phoenix to rural Arizona at the invitation of a friend, but when she arrived, the mother at the house refused to host her. Gillian used her OCJ Kids phone to ask for help, and OCJ Kids introduced her to a member of a local Assemblies of God church.
“I was alone and afraid in a strange place,” Gillian says. “I used this OCJ Kids phone to call for help. They helped me get furniture for my new apartment and connect me with some amazing people. I am so grateful for this program.”
Webb hopes others will catch the vision and help foster youth in their cities across the nation.
“It’s ripe right now for the Church to step up and to make an impact in this world of foster care,” Webb says. “Our goal is to change the culture of foster care and we want to do that by equipping and empowering the Church.”
OCJ Kids has been helping youth in the foster care system for more than a decade.