Keeping the faith
After three years of helping girls aging out of foster care, Manna House receives an unexpected miracle.
Ashley Walker founded Launch Outreach and Manna House, a home for teenage girls transitioning out of foster care. Jordan Edwards, right, lived in foster care from the age of 2 months, moved to Manna House at 18 and will soon join the nonprofit’s team as a full-time resident advisor.
For Jordan Edwards, turning 18 wasn’t a joyous celebration. After living in foster care since she was 2 months old, she was suddenly faced with the reality of being on her own, without any support.
“Then I met Ashley,” the 19-year-old Edwards says. “She and Manna House changed my life. I don’t know where I would be without them.”
Oklahoma has approximately 10,000 children in DHS custody, with an average of 300 aging out each year. This rite of passage into adulthood can be a scary time for a young girl in the foster care system.
“There was a huge gap in services,” says Ashley Walker, founder of Launch Outreach and Manna House. “When I started my career in social work at the Laura Dester shelter, I was stunned to see that there was nothing in place for kids who age out of the foster care system. Many of them had nowhere to go.”
It was that realization that hit home for Walker. Raised in a family of foster care supporters (her parents and grandparents have fostered children for as long as she can remember), Walker decided she needed to take things a step further.
“I wanted to do something that focused specifically on girls, since no one was working with them,” Walker says. “If I could create some sort of transitional home, something that could give these teenage girls a chance at becoming independent adults, that would help bridge this gap.”
Walker’s idea for a transitional living home came to fruition after countless meetings and hours of hard work.
“I think I met with every person in the city of Tulsa who had something to do with foster care,” Walker laughs. “I had less than $10,000 in our account when I started. It was a huge leap of faith.”
That leap of faith paid off and Manna House became a reality. After three years, Manna House has helped 17 girls transition into adulthood by providing them with housing, life skills training, tutoring and additional resources as needed.
Edwards is one of Manna House’s success stories.
“I am so grateful to Manna House and everything they have done to support me,” Edwards says, her voice choking. “I could have easily dropped out, but instead I was able to graduate from high school last spring.”
“Jordan represents everything we want for our girls,” Walker says. “She is such a great example of what these girls can accomplish when they have a support system in place.”
Among other barriers, driving a car can be a substantial obstacle for most teens in foster care.
“This is something that most of us take for granted, but it is a huge stepping stone for these girls,” Walker says. “Living in Tulsa without being able to drive or having access to a car is a sizable hindrance for these girls in going to work and to school.”
Walker and her team help the girls at Manna House, including Edwards, obtain their licenses and cars that have been donated to the organization.
“I never thought I would get my license, let alone ever own a car,” Edwards says with a grin. “There is no better feeling than being independent and having some control of your life, especially when you’ve never had that before.”
Manna House is only one of the programs that Walker started under her umbrella organization Launch Outreach.
In addition to housing, Launch Outreach provides tutoring and online classes to help girls in the foster care system finish high school. Volunteers provide life skill classes, teaching the girls everything from opening a checking account to basic cooking skills and job interview tips.
Another Launch Outreach program is Heaven’s Keys, which provides a way for the girls to earn money.
“Heaven’s Keys is a company owned by Launch Outreach that focuses on teaching entrepreneurship and leadership skills to young girls in and out of DHS custody,” Walker says. “It’s a merchandise company where the girls make and sell necklaces, and everything is managed by the girls in the program and community volunteers.”
Launch Outreach’s programs will not be limited to residents of Manna House thanks to the expansion. Its classes and programs will be open to any child in the foster care system.
A new home
Although Manna House has had great success, its current home can only house four girls at a time. The need, of course, is much greater. Once again, Walker turned to her faith.
“The name Manna House is truly fitting for our home,” she says. “To me, manna represents God’s provision. The word manna comes from the Book of Exodus. People were traveling from a place of oppression to the Promised Land. They lacked resources, but prayed to God, and he provided them manna, or bread from heaven.”
Walker’s prayers for more space were again answered, not with manna, but through an anonymous donor.
Manna House is expanding — by quite a lot.
The anonymous donor gave Launch Outreach an 8,000-square-foot property in south Tulsa that is currently being renovated into dormitories for the girls. The donor was alerted to Manna House in a December 2013 TulsaPeople story. The space will be ready in early fall.
If that weren’t enough, the anonymous donor also purchased the house they currently occupy.
“We will be able to house up to 12 girls at one time,” Walker says of the new property. “In addition, we are able to provide five full-time RAs, who will live in the home full time with the girls and provide them the support they need.”
Walker eventually would like to be able to house more than 25 girls at one time.
“That is considered phase three,” Walker says. “I am in awe of what we have been able to accomplish in three years. But there is still much work to be done.”
And what’s next for Jordan Edwards? She will actually join the Manna House team as one of the five full-time RAs. And in addition to her job, she will begin classes at Tulsa Community College in the fall. What is she planning to study? Social work.
“My experience at Manna House has made me want to help others, like Manna House and their staff have helped me,” Edwards says. “I want to help the homeless and give them the skills they need to get back on their feet.”
Walker’s faith and hard work have certainly started to pay off. She is forever grateful to the people who believed in her mission, especially her anonymous donor.
“I will never have adequate words to express my gratitude — his gifts and generosity have changed the entire trajectory of our ministry,” she says.
Want to help Manna House?
- Donate your working car.
- Volunteer to teach a class in your area of expertise.
- Buy a necklace from Heaven’s Keys for $35 each.
- Tutor a student.
- Purchase a ticket, table or sponsorship to Launch Outreach’s annual fundraiser Sept. 20.
- Donate or purchase household items for the Manna House expansion.
Manna House measures success with its girls in a number of areas. In three years, the program has helped them reach many milestones:
17 girls were enrolled in school and 11 found jobs while in the program.
80 percent of all program participants have volunteered in the community.
Three cars were donated to help three girls achieve independence and stability.
Those ending the semester at Manna House had a 100 percent school passing rate.
An average of 200 community volunteers annually establish a culture of volunteerism and connect girls with caring adults in the community.
Heaven’s Keys Co., a youth-run entrepreneurial program begun in 2014, has generated $5,000, teaching essential business and life skills.
One girl graduated high school and will begin college in fall 2016.