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Mobtown Beat

The Next Step

Program Prepares Foster Teens for Adult Life

By Shawn Badgley | Posted 9/2/1998

Patrick Patrong has more than 1,850 children scattered across the state of Maryland. And he's one of the most responsible, poised, and dedicated people you will ever meet. Just ask his kids.

"I look up to him," Nate Brooks, 20, says. "I lean on Patrick because I know he'll be there."

Brooks could mean the "look-up" part literally--the 6-foot-6 Patrong used to play for Trinidad and Tobago's national basketball team--but it's Patrong's work as coordinator of the state's independent-living program (ILP) that elicits the most admiration. Since 1996, when he stepped into the position that had been vacant for two years, Patrong has turned the program into one of the nation's most innovative in preparing young adults in foster care for life on their own, according to many associated with the Maryland ILP.

"Basically, we accept the concept that the chances of these children being adopted or returned to their birth families is minimal, so we concentrate on developing their skills to function in society," Patrong says of his 16- to 21-year-old charges. "Our areas of concentration range from education to employment, social interaction, cultural awareness, hygiene, money management, and self-esteem."

Such programs are replicated in all 50 states, but funding for independent-living assistance became a regular feature of the federal budget only six years ago, and amounts to about $70 million nationally. The Maryland program--run by the Social Services Administration, an arm of the state Department of Human Resources--functions on an annual budget of about $1.6 million, based on a per-child formula that amounts to less than $900 each.

"We're able to work with it," Patrong says. "We're seeking more money in the form of a federal grant to supplement it for a positive youth-development program." His office is seeking a $600,000 federal grant to coordinate state, city, and nonprofit organizations' efforts and to build an effort to "bring out the resources our youth have to offer."

"A lot of people react adversely when they hear the term 'foster youth,'" Patrong says. "They think it means learning disabilities, maladjusted kids, and delinquent kids. We're trying to show people that these kids have a lot to offer, because I know that they do."

Patrong would not comment on the status of the grant request, but an ILP employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity says Maryland--in addition to nine other states--has received the money. "We got it, and we're looking forward to launching this program for the kids," the staffer says.

For the kids. That has been Patrong's mission since he took over the ILP, fresh out of Morgan State University, where he earned a master's degree in city and regional planning. The postgraduate work was a far cry from his undergraduate major--design engineering, in which he earned a bachelor of science from Louisiana's Grambling State University in 1991.

"I didn't really know what I wanted to do when I first got to college, so I tried that," he says. "And by the time I had been Student Government Association president and gotten involved with community activities, it was too late to change my major."

After graduating from Grambling in 1991, Patrong began working for the AFL-CIO as an organizer, traveling the country and learning about "all kinds of people and all kinds of cities." But living out of hotels was taking its toll on Patrong, who had a daughter growing up at home. He decided it was time to settle down and stay put, and he found a program at Morgan that would combine his expertise in engineering and community service.

While studying at Morgan, he worked part time at the Social Services Administration, as a program specialist with the Baltimore City Teen Unit. When he finished school and began distributing résumés, Linda Ellard, executive director of the administration, asked why she hadn't gotten one.

"She offered me the job [as ILP coordinator] right there," Patrong recalls. "She charged me with developing our foster youth past the minimum, and that's what we've tried to do.

"I think we've succeeded so far, but we have a long way to go."

Aimee Bollinger-Smith, supervisor of the Baltimore County ILP, agrees.

"Patrick, as much as anyone in Maryland, has been instrumental in encouraging our local programs in the state to be innovative, creative, and energetic in spreading our advances across the country," she says. "He has helped us develop and share our responses to various challenges."

"We've basically tried to take chances and make changes in the standard approach to developing foster youth," says Patrong, who has made presentations at several national ILP conventions. "Instead of 'dealing' with these kids, we work with them as much as possible."

For instance, Patrong has contacted many organizations in the area about internships for the teens. He's putting the finishing touches on an arrangement with United Parcel Service to hire ILP clients part time; the youths will make $8.50 an hour, receive full benefits including a 401(k) plan, and get an opportunity to earn college credit through the company.

"We're very, very close to moving forward," says Kevin Garvey, training manager for UPS. "And we're equally as pleased and enthused as Patrick in what we are trying to accomplish here."

Maryland has also started sending foster youth to eight-week computer courses conducted by the National Welfare to Work Campaign, an organization that helps former welfare recipients acquire job skills. Each student receives a computer upon finishing the program. The program cost of about $2,500 per student far outstrips the average Patrong has to spend on each ILP client for a year, "but we think it's worth it," he says.

Most recently, the Maryland ILP became the first program of its kind in the country to host a regional independent-living conference, hosting representatives from Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., at Morgan State University in August for activities and workshops on areas of common interest. The previous month, Nate Brooks--a member of the Maryland ILP Youth Advisory Board (YAB)--helped plan the annual statewide Teen Conference; the event at Frostburg State University drew 300 participants, compared to 65 three years ago.

"I played a big part in the conference, and that felt good," says Brooks, who is running for YAB president this year. "It's changed because a lot of people look up to me now, and know what I stand for. I listen to people's ideas, and I learned that from Patrick."

While Patrong appreciates the compliments, he understands several challenges lie ahead. The teen foster population is increasing every year, and education concerns are paramount. (Although Maryland's foster-youth attendance in college is above the national average, the state has not implemented tuition waivers for foster kids to attend state schools, as some other states have done.) But whenever he gets nervous or exhausted, Patrong says he simply remembers a saying he learned as a young man and applies it to his work.

"If you aim for the stars and you miss, you still fall safely into the trees," he says. "But if you only aim for the trees and miss, you end up right back on the ground, and that can be dangerous."

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