FAIRLAWN — Akron mother of five Cecilia O’Donnell has always wanted to be a foster parent.

When a friend volunteering with an organization helping people out of sex trafficking told her those in foster care were vulnerable to becoming trafficking victims, she knew she had to do something to help.

In 2016, she founded Fostering Independence, a nonprofit group that helps Summit County youths aging out of the foster care system or those who lack parental support, providing them with resources and mentoring.

"They come from challenging backgrounds,” O’Donnell said. “Some of them have parents, but they're not able to support them, and a lot of kids once they turn 18 are on their own."

The nonprofit also helps former foster youths going to college with getting supplies for their dorm rooms, a collection Semans Family Dentistry in Fairlawn is helping with this month.

In Summit County, the number of youths emancipating or “aging out” of the foster care system without a permanent placement is in the 30s each year, according to Summit County Children Services. Statewide, roughly 1,000 youths age out of foster care each year.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, one in five youths aging out of care at 18 was homeless, only 58 percent graduated high school by age 19 and one in four was involved in the criminal justice system within two years of leaving care.

JoAnn Semans, a dentist for 35 years who met O’Donnell through mutual friends, said the office does two community projects per year, such as a Harvest for Hunger food drive.

"Prior to meeting you, I didn't know where foster kids went or what their life was like after [they aged out],” Semans told O’Donnell during a recent interview at the dentist's Fairlawn office.

O’Donnell said scholarships and grants are available to help cover students’ tuition and books, but there’s rarely anything available to help them get the things they need for their dorm rooms.

By providing those supplies, along with other support, it helps them feel more like a normal college student and be prepared for the experience, she said.

“These kids get opportunities to go to college, but there's more than just tuition and books,” said Tom Semans, also a dentist for 35 years.

All three have put children through college, and they recalled everything their children brought with them for their dorm rooms.

"To think that someone comes with maybe one bag of things and that's all they have just tears me up,” JoAnn Semans said. "I think they need to go with confidence. It's scary enough, college, that freshman year.”

The Semans' office is collecting laundry soap, dryer sheets, pillows, power strips, flash drives, umbrellas, under-bed storage, shower soap, body wash, $25 Walmart gift cards and monetary donations.

A pile of donations currently sits in the office’s lobby. About $300 in monetary donations has also been collected. To donate, visit the office, which is matching all monetary donations up to $500, at 2660 W. Market St., Suite 200, Fairlawn. For more information, visit fosteringindependence.net.

This is the fourth year the nonprofit has collected dorm room supplies.

In its first year, Fostering Independence helped 14 children, all through Boys Hope Girls Hope, a scholarship program in Garfield Heights, near Cleveland, that helps at-risk children and teens, called scholars in the program, achieve educational success. Last year, it helped 32, its largest group.

This year, Fostering Independence is helping 13 scholars at Boys Hope Girls Hope, delivering the supplies to them in July.

Also this year, O’Donnell said 29 foster youths will be aging out by July, according to Summit County Children Services, one of the agencies O’Donnell works with to get in touch with youths in need. The nonprofit also works with Project Rise, which helps students experiencing homelessness in Akron Public Schools, including 250 students lacking parental support, she said.

O’Donnell — who also created a business, Llennodo Creations, and a beach pillow, the Beallow — operates the volunteer-run nonprofit out of her basement, where she stores supplies. She’s hoping to get storage space donated in the future, as all monetary donations go to help the youths.

When she created the nonprofit with the help of Akron SCORE, she wanted to name it Fostering Hope, but that name was already taken.

"I thought what was my goal, and my goal was to foster independence,” she said. “I wanted them to be able to be self-sufficient."

O’Donnell gives out her cellphone number to the young people she helps and tells them to call or text any time.

"When they reach out to me, I have to be the one that doesn't leave them in the dark,” she said. “These kids can count on Fostering Independence.”

 

Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, emills@thebeaconjournal.com and @EmilyMills818.