By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor
UTICA — Being able to handle the responsibilities of adulthood can be a tall order for children with the full support of a loving family. For young people emerging from foster care, however, this can be so overwhelming that they are sent careening into a life of homelessness, drugs and crime.
There are many good agencies available to help foster children deal with the new-found responsibilities of life on their own, but a group of deacons and their wives are starting a program to help those that they see as overlooked and vulnerable.
John Bosco House will provide supervised transitional housing for young men between the ages of 18 and 21. The house will initially have two residents but will accommodate up to six by the end of next year. It is located in the former rectory of St. George’s Church, which closed in 2007.
“The goal of John Bosco House is to find endangered young men that we can succeed in turning into citizens,” said Deacon Edward Kernan, the treasurer for the project. “We want to catch young men before they go off the tracks.”
The house is scheduled to open on Jan. 31, the feast of St. John Bosco, patron saint of young people. Deacon Gil Nadeau, director of Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen at St. Joseph/St. Patrick’s Parish in Utica, serves as the chair of the board of directors for John Bosco House. Nadeau first became aware of the need for a home for homeless young men through his work at the soup kitchen. “We were addressing the hunger issue but the homeless issue was not being fully addressed,” Deacon Gil said.
“We’re really trying to provide a home-like atmosphere,” he said. “The staff here will be like parents, teaching them skills that we take for granted every day, things like how to dress for a job interview, how to cook and shop for groceries, how to balance a checkbook.”
There will also be a strict 10 p.m. curfew, a sign-out book at the front door where the young men must write where they’re going and when they’ll be back, mandatory dinners together each evening, household chores, opportunities for counseling and reflection and a requirement that the young men either work or go to school while they live in the house. A supervisor will be in the house around the clock to make sure these rules are followed.
Deacon Gil said this is all part of an effort to give the young men the support and discipline that may have been lacking in their life until now.
He said permanent deacons are uniquely suited to helping young men. There are three other deacons serving on the board of directors: Deacon Daniel Klockowski of St. Basil’s Melkite Catholic Church in East Utica, Deacon Edward Kernan of St. John the Evangelist Church in New Hartford and Deacon Richard Prusko of St. Mark’s Church in North Utica. Donna Nelson, a nurse, Catherine Kernan and Mary Nadeau also serve on the board.
“None of us are professionals at this, but we have quite a few advisors that have the professional experience,” Deacon Gil said. He said doctors, registered nurses and clinical psychologists sit on the board of advisors and have volunteered their services to help with the house whenever needed. The John Bosco House board also conducted a feasibility study and contacted similar projects in Buffalo and Brooklyn for advice.
Rick Roberts, a third order Franciscan and a retired special education teacher, will be the program director. He said he will take on a surrogate father position in the house, something he has already had some experience with. “My kids are a little bit older, so I can fit right in here in the father role teaching them all the skills they need,“ he said.
Dan O’Connor, 24, will be the live-in assistant director. While young men of any faith are welcome at John Bosco House, there will be no proselytizing. But O’Connor said he gets spiritual fultillment from the work itself. “Even when we’re not explicitly talking about Jesus or praying to Jesus, the entire undertaking is a work of faith,” he said.
Bishop Robert Cunningham gifted the buildings to the program, and a grant of $100,000 was awarded through the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties. The program has gotten 501 (c)3 status as a charitable corporation and will need to come up with its own funding to cover operating costs. It will not receive funding from the diocese or the HOPE Appeal.
Initially, the group will work mainly with foster care support agencies and school programs as “feeder agencies” to refer young men who are vulnerable and might be facing homelessness or other dangerous environments. The young men referred to the board at John Bosco House will be interviewed to see if they will be a good fit.
Mary Nadeau said the first group of young men will set the tone for the house, and she hopes peer pressure will be a useful tool in shaping the young men. “They’re going to be with other guys who are headed in the right direction, so there should be positive peer pressure,” she said. “It’ll be a gradual building of the culture of the house.”
In the meantime, the house itself is already prepared for the young men who will come to call it home. There is a fully-stocked kitchen, a big dining table with china for Sunday dinners and bedrooms with dressers, beds and matching sheet and comforter sets. Almost everything in the house was donated from local organizations.
O’Connor said he knows there is an element of risk in taking on a project like this. But he said the rewards — and the call to do this work — outweigh the fear.
“You can really do that with any situation, even right down to driving home from work at the end of the day. If you sit and think about all the things that could go wrong it’s frightening,” O’Connor said. “But with faith we know nothing outside of God’s will is going to happen.”