BIG RAPIDS — Leora Bain was a little girl with big dreams of becoming a nurse.
After spending her early years in the Montcalm County foster care system, Bain veered down the road that statistics predicted for her: a teen pregnancy, drug use, homelessness and even a suicide attempt.
Today Bain is a registered nurse with a master’s degree. In 2018 she founded GLIDE, “Guiding Life to Independence through Development and Education,” a non-profit organization that provides young adults who “age out” of the foster care system with tools to become and remain successfully independent.
“Our goal is not to push or lead in any direction. It’s to give them the space to allow them to start thinking about what their future looks like, and the experiences they can have because they don’t know,” she said. “We want to help them figure out what they want to be, and then support them in that.”
While Bain didn’t age out of the system, she is very much aware of the impact it has had on her life. She wants GLIDE to provide participants with individuals in their corner who believe in them, something Bain didn’t have growing up.
Bain was placed in foster care shortly after she was born, and was in five different foster homes by the time she was 7. Each time she and her older sister, Vivian, were returned to her mother, whose drug and alcohol use would lead them back into foster care.
“In the ’80s it was difficult for fathers in the court system to get custody, especially of little girls,” Bain said. “Then he got married, and we were placed with him. We didn’t go back to foster care after that, but not necessarily because the abuse ended.”
In their last foster care placement, the sisters, 7 and 8 at the time, were told by their attorney that if they found themselves in foster care again, they would be adopted out and never return home.
“Why he would tell a 7- and an 8-year-old that is beyond me. What that meant was, if we went back into the foster care system, we were likely going to age out because he also told us that children our age were not likely to be adopted out,” Bain said. “My sister and I made a pact: no matter what happened in our father’s home, we would never tell anybody because it was better to be in that situation with people we knew and were familiar with, than complete strangers and not know where we going to be or even if we would be together. And we kept it.”
As Bain became an adolescent, she began to follow the path others had laid out for her.
“I was told by a host of teachers and counselors and social workers that I would never be able to become what I wanted to become,” she said. “I was often encouraged to bring my standards down a bit, because being a child in the foster care system, it was unlikely that I would ever be able to reach that goal.”
In her freshman year at high school, Bain completed CPR training. When her teacher handed her the certificate, he asked for a favor.
“‘If I ever collapse in front of this classroom of a heart attack, I want you to leave me alone, because at least then I’ll stand a 50-50 chance of survival,’” he told her.
Her mother introduced her to her first drug at 13, said Bain. She was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day at 14. Living with abuse under her father’s roof, and lacking the confidence to go out on her own, Bain got pregnant at 15, became a legally emancipated minor and married at 16, and was divorced and on her own at 17.
“I jumped from the frying pan into the fire and was continuing that cycle of abuse,” she said. “It makes sense, that’s the statistic. That’s what I did.”
At 19 Bain was homeless. Until she was 22, she couch-surfed, stayed with friends or family if they let her, stayed at a shelter a couple of times and lived in her car. Her daughter went to live with her biological father, who had remarried “a wonderful woman who I am close friends with to this day,” Bain said.
“At that time, I thought my daughter would be safe there, not with me when I didn’t know where I was going to lay my head at night,” she said.
Bain had dropped out of high school in 11th grade. With all the moves she had made, the schools lost her transcripts, she was told. The only record they had for her coursework was a quarter of a credit.
“I had been on the honor roll,” she said. “Because of what I went through as a child of the foster care system, and all the ways I was never lifted up to a higher standard within the public school system, I just eventually fell out of that. If I can’t go and become what I want to become, if I can’t reach the goals that I want to reach, if that is impossible for me, then why am I here?”
Her ‘come-to-Jesus moment’
A turning point came when Bain was 21 when she was admitted to an in-patient psychiatric facility after attempting suicide. A nurse sat down with her and asked, “So, tell me, what’s so bad about your life that you’re sitting here with bandages around your wrist?”
“At first I completely lashed out at her, because how dare you judge me? ‘You have no idea who I am, you have no idea what I’ve been through, you have no idea what I’m dealing with. How dare you?’” Bain recalled. “She said, ‘OK, so tell me.’ This was a come-to-Jesus moment. Basically what it was was one excuse after another after another after another.”
The nurse told Bain that she didn’t have a choice about what happened to her up to age 16, but that she was allowing it to continue to affect her life. Every decision Bain made after she left her parents’ home was hers, and hers alone, the nurse said. It was not anyone’s fault but her own that she was where she was that day.
“One by one she removed the excuses I had, and confronted me with the reality that my choices are what put me in that seat,” said Bain. “I went to my room and bawled. After I was finished with my little self-pity party, I came to the realization that she was right.”
Then the nurse said something that Leora will never forget: “If you want to compare pasts, line for line, I can do that with you, but I’m not the one sitting here with bandages around my wrist, am I?”
“That tells me this nurse had experienced some things, but she’s a nurse. It also told me, well, if she can do, then why can’t I?” Bain said. “That very visit, that was the changing point in my life. For the first time in a long time, I had hope. I thought, well, there’s a reason I’m still here, so I’m going to figure out what it is.”
Bain moved to Lansing, where she got a job and her GED, “the first thing educationally that I accomplished. She passed “with flying colors,” in the top 3 percent in the nation compared with traditional high school graduates, despite taking the test cold with no preparation, she said.
With her confidence starting to build, Bain enrolled in nursing pre-requisites at Lansing Community College. She began counseling and stuck with it. She got her daughter back. She “dipped (her) feet” in the medical field by working as an uncertified home aide, doing in-home care for seniors. She got married to her current husband and moved to St. Johns, and then to Big Rapids so her husband could attend Ferris State University. She completed training as a certified nursing assistant, graduating with 98 percent overall and passing the state test. Then she got her medical assistant diploma with honors.
While Bain was working at Big Rapids Hospital as a CNA, nursing colleagues complimented her and asked her when she was going to get her nursing license. She applied to Ferris State and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2015 with a 3.7 GPA.
“Each of those steps was another confirmation that I could do this,” she said. “It was the positive influences that really pushed me to do and become better. I could never thank all the people that did that at those points in my life.”
In a class in nursing school, Bain was tasked with coming up with an idea for a nonprofit that would serve an at-risk community and, working with a group, to develop the beginnings of a business plan for that organization. She already had part of a plan completed for what was to become GLIDE.
“I took it off the shelf and brought it to my group. By the time, we were done … they turned to me and said, ‘You’re going to do this right? You need to do this,’” Bain said.
A few years into being a nurse, the idea came back to her, and she took the plan to the director of REACH/Traverse Place in Flint, a transitional housing program for homeless adolescents and young adults. Bain pitched her idea, expecting him to tell her to scale it back, that it was way too big of a project.
“But what I heard was, ‘So why don’t you have a board yet? What is holding you back?’” she said. “I thought, ‘OK, I guess I’m really going to do this.”
Bain put together her board of directors and filed paperwork with the state to become an organization in Michigan. GLIDE became official on Oct. 31, 2018, and received nonprofit 501(c)3 status in June 2019.
Laurie Morse-Dell has been on GLIDE’s board of directors since January. Already active in various efforts to support youth exiting foster care, Morse-Dell said she saw that GLIDE was looking to add to its board and joined after doing some research. She was particular drawn to the organization when she learned that Bain has lived the foster care experience.
“Her efforts to make sure that no one else goes through that and to make sure we understand those being served, it’s one of those things that … once I know about it, I can’t ignore it,” said Morse-Dell. “We continue to put challenges and road blocks before individuals that have no control over their situation. It’s just giving them a fighting chance. Everyone should have resources or a mentor to look up to.”
Meanwhile, Bain also earned a master’s degree in nursing leadership-health care systems in 2019 from Grand Canyon University with a 4.0 GPA. She works full-time as a registered nurse at Spectrum Health in Big Rapids and Reed hospitals.
“I stress the GPA because of where I came from and how many people told me I couldn’t do it,” she said. “Not only did I do it, I did it and I did it well.”
By the numbers
In the United States, 30,000 young adults exit the foster care system every year. Fifteen percent become homeless immediately upon turning 18, and that number goes up to 36 percent at 21, Bain said.
In Michigan, around 13,000 children and youth are in foster care at any given time. If they haven’t been adopted, at age 18 — or 21 if they fit certain criteria — they age out of the system and lose the support they had been receiving.
“These kids, when they turn 18 years old, if they’re not able to stay in the house where they are, they can go back to families where they were removed from to begin with, join the U.S. military, enter transitional housing if there is one where they are and not a massive waiting list, which there probably is, or go out into the street,” Bain said. “Once they find themselves on the street, a lot of them engage in illegal activities for purposes of sheer survival.”
According to Bain, more than 80 percent of the boys who age out of foster care end up in the criminal justice system. A large percentage of girls are pregnant before 21, which gives them access to services they didn’t have before, such as rental assistance, food stamps, and child care. It also sets them up to be reliant on the welfare system, “so we don’t want that,” Bain said.
Region 4, which includes Kent County, along with one other region in the state, hosts 50 percent of the state’s homeless youth. Bain plans to focus on those who have aged out of foster care. This will not only help relieve some of the burden on agencies already helping the larger population, but it will also allow her to design a program specifically for those formerly in foster care. The barriers they have are different from the general homeless population, and the traumas are different, she said.
“At 18 years old they had a family, now they’re on their own. Their life has been filled with turmoil. They’ve likely moved around from one foster care to another to another, not having any meaningful connections, knowing they didn’t have a place to be on their 18th birthday, not knowing what their future looks like,” said Bain. “They are in fight or flight.”
Ready to GLIDE home
Bain and her board, all of them volunteers, are currently building the infrastructure for GLIDE, developing programs, establishing relationships with community partners, and getting people familiar with what they’re doing. They are also working hard to secure donations for a physical location.
“We cannot have adolescents in unsafe or unstable housing, and focusing on what they’re going to do for their career when they are in unsafe or unstable housing. We have to have the location,” she said. “When we have that physical location, it will give us the ability to start our program and services.”
She and the board have a location in mind. It’s a motel with a conference center, restaurant, and a detached building that would be perfect for a private transitional housing for program participants. The motel, restaurant and conference center could continue to function and serve as an on-site, work readiness program, in addition to being a major form of self-funding, Bain said.
To come to the table with an offer, however, they have to raise a minimum of $520,000. They’re competing for grants with agencies that have proven track records, so their best hope of raising that kind of money is through community support. They’ve planned a virtual 5k run on Nov. 1, which is the start of National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, and hope raise $10,000. Visit glidehome.org/events to get involved or make a donation.
GLIDE programs will focus on participants’ “holistic needs,” said Bain. The goal is to get them independent by providing them with the skillset they’ll need as adults: from balancing a checkbook and budgeting to cooking and cleaning. Staff will help participants navigate a system that is more complicated for them than it is for others to access their birth certificate, immunization records, social security number and other vital records.
“We have to help them feel safe, cared about, connected before we can even hope to get them into the deeper things: get a job, hold that job down, talk about what you want to be when you grow up,” Bain said. “We’re there to help guide them through all of that, with case management, mental health care, and access to physical health care.”
Once the program is in place, Bain plans to follow these young adults after they leave for at least three years. She wants to show that GLIDE is not only successful, it’s self-sustainable — most likely 100 percent sustainable, she said. If they can prove they’re lowering incidences of homelessness, teenage parenting, going into the justice system, substance abuse, and repeating those cycles, she hopes to be able to package the program and sent it out to different areas of the state, maybe even to be used with different populations.
“Leora is 100 percent dedicated to this. She’s not going to give up on this, no matter it takes,” said Morse-Dell. “Her being such as fighter for the cause, and considering herself a survivor of the foster care system, it’s hard to not follow her. Her drive and her passion to get everyone to understand what it means to age out inspires you to do something about it.”
There are many ways to volunteer time and talent to GLIDE. To learn more, visit glidehome.org.