Roots & Wings: A Strong Arm of Care for the Formerly Fostered

By Steve Sears

Shaun Evans, newly appointed Executive Director of Roots & Wings, has works of art on display at his desk.

Evans, an Iona University graduate who majored in social work, is here for a reason. He lost his mom at the age of 7, and his dad got cancer when Evans was 13. With his dad in and out of the hospital, Evans became what he calls a “latch key kid.” “You come by yourself and there’s no one there. That was kind of tough. You’re really on your own. I went through having to learn on my own. There was no parent there.”

“I was living in an apartment in Queens (New York City) by myself.”

It turned him on to social work and led him to work for The Center for Urban Community Services, which he loved. Clients would move in in their 40s, 50s, or 60s, once they felt they couldn’t live on the streets anymore. It got Evans to thinking what a shame it was that they couldn’t get to the clients or form an intervention at a younger age. After 15 years, he moved to the suburbs, and Roots & Wings. The job post spoke to him.

Tameer has benefitted from Roots & Wings. “Since starting the program I’m finally learning skills to better manage my time which is really helping me with school! Housing stability is the biggest benefit by far. I can relax now because I know where I’ll lay my head at night. I no longer have to worry about finding a safe place to sleep at night which is a huge relief.”

Roots & Wings started out in 1999 as an all-volunteer organization. Irene DeGrandpre, a CASA volunteer and New Jersey Hero honoree, was the founder. The intent was to provide an intensive, life-changing program focusing on education and the development of critically necessary life skills, and establishing a residential program to support young people ages 18 – 23 who are transitioning from foster care to independent life.

“We still have a large volunteer base of about 200 people, and we have a mentor group – they’re volunteers but they’re highly trained to mentor our young people as well, and we have about 6 full-time staff members right now, and about 21 clients in the RISE program, and then the FLY program, which is the school based program, that normally would be going into schools to do support groups, we’ve actually now adapted it using a critical time intervention model which I learned about in New York City that is meant to take people as they age out of foster care and wrap them with social services in the community of their choice.” 

Roots & Wings will take young people from any New Jersey county, but currently only has apartments for clients in both Morris and Union counties. 

Jazz is a newer Roots and Wings client. “I am excelling in improving my mental health, being able to take care of it has always been a struggle for me, but it has definitely gotten better while being in the program.” Jazz has also benefitted having the opportunity to not have to worry about housing while working and going to school. “My path has made me aware of my mistakes but also MUCH more aware of my successes. I’m less inclined to be hard on myself when I do something wrong and am able to appreciate when I’ve done something right, which is a big step for me.”

“The individuals,” says Evans, “are amazing.”

Evans hopes to establish congregate housing. He explains. “What I would like to do, and one of the most important things we can do going forward, is – right now we have scattered sites housing (apartments of varying size in different buildings). What I’d like to do is when our clients age out of foster care, the first year in our program is to have a building that has 8 to 12 units, in a nice building, and have our offices very close by.” After a year of being near staff 24/7 learning and negotiating life and interpersonal skills, the individual can graduate to scattered sites so they can practice and live what they learned prior to moving out.

Finally, Willie is doing well school and starting his own business. “I benefitted from R&W in many aspects of my life, from them helping me save, supporting me in school, and mentoring me to become more confident in myself. My future is looking bright if I may say so, I’m about to be a first-generation college graduate in December, and I own my own clothing business.” He then describes his outlook on life. “I believe that there’s beauty in the ugliness, happiness in the success, and that you’ll never be happy until you love yourself.”

Roots & Wings is located at 75 Bloomfield Avenue (Suite 303) in Denville. Visit rootsandwingsnj.org. 

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