When De’Jan Wilder aged out of foster care following her 18th birthday, her boot to independence left her feeling like she didn’t really have a home.
After a short stay with her grandmother, she got her first apartment. But like many foster care youth, she had limited money and support so she spent weeks sleeping on the floor of her unfurnished apartment.
“I didn’t have nothing,” Wilder, now 20, says.
Then she found Chair-ity, a nonprofit founded in 2014 by Akron native Maria Paparella.
“They helped me get tables, a bed, bed frame, box springs, couches, lamps and stuff like that,” Wilder says. “She furnished my house. She did everything. It was a hard situation, but I feel like it’s gotten better because of support like that.”
The nonprofit, started by Paparella when she was in high school, works to furnish the homes of aged-out foster care youth in Northeast Ohio. Since its inception, which focused its efforts in Summit County, the organization has expanded into five additional surrounding counties.
“The first delivery was pretty shocking to me. While I had the whole list that told me everything I’d be bringing, I don’t think I truly realized that I’d go in and they’d be sleeping on the ground with a blanket and be waiting for us to come,” Paparella, now 23, says. “It’s amazing to see how you can change someone’s outlook or help someone get on their feet with simple acts like this.”
Growing up as an only child, Paparella longed for a sibling, but when her family discovered they were unable to conceive another child, they began exploring the options of fostering and adopting.
She recalls opening the Summit County Children Services website and combing through profiles of children in need of a home. She remembers landing on the photo of a girl her age and fantasizing about her becoming her sister: they shared the same interests and their birthdays were even a few days apart.
Ultimately, the process of adoption, as many families find, was too costly and incredibly time consuming.
But Paparella didn’t forget that little girl whom she wanted so desperately to be her sister. As she was taking the next steps in her life, planning for college and a career, she also began researching the foster care system and talking to social workers about what happens to children who aren’t adopted.
“I couldn’t imagine being 18 and being completely on my own,” she says. “I knew that when I went to college, my parents would be driving me there, helping me navigate that whole process.”
Eager to help, she spoke with social workers about the biggest needs of foster care systems. One of the things a social worker brought up was lack of funds to furnish housing units once foster kids move out.
“While the county’s social services can provide a lot of resources for them, there’s this gap. To warehouse furniture, get a truck, move it from and to a space; you need a whole other group to do that,” she says. “I remember thinking, ok, this is something that is manageable for me to organize.”
Social workers helped connect Paparella, then a high school sophomore, with aged-out foster youth, and she began organizing pick-ups of unused furniture from family friends to deliver. What began as a modest operation with some donated warehouse space and a truck continued to grow as word spread about what she was doing.
AfterPaparella graduated from Kenyon College in spring 2020, she decided to focus her attention on Chair-ity. Since then, she has expanded efforts beyond Akron into five surrounding counties: Ashtabula, Lake, Cuyahoga, Medina and Stark.
In every delivery, Chair-ity provides basic furniture needed for a small apartment, such as beds, couches, coffee tables, lamps and even kitchen utensils. Paparella also emphasizes the importance of making sure to provide beds for children in the house as well, as required by social services.
“Our ability to provide beds for children is really important. Eight in 10 girls that age out of foster care will become pregnant before 24,” Paparella says. “We need to ensure they don’t have separation from their children as they were separated from their parents and don’t go through that same cycle of trauma again.”
Chair-ity has provided for 98 youth in Summit County and about 40 children of those aged-out youth since 2014. With expansion to six counties in the past six months, the organization delivered to over 140 youth and 70 children.
She’s still awaiting that 100-home milestone in Summit County––a goal she expected to reach at most eight months ago. The federal eviction moratorium, while intended to assist people who cannot pay rent due to loss of income during the pandemic, has restricted options for youth aging out of foster care who typically move into housing in low-income areas with high turnover rates. If a landlord is unable to evict, there are fewer available units and new tenants cannot move in and are experiencing instantaneous homelessness before Chair-ity can reach them.
Another problem Paparella says the eviction moratorium poses is a landlord’s willingness to approve an 18-year-old for a housing unit — even though many of them qualify for housing vouchers that guarantee rent.
“A lot of landlords are unlikely to rent out right now because they don’t want someone to come in if they’re worried they won’t be able to pay and they can’t kick the tenant out,” Paparella says. “So it’s not only about finding empty space, but finding someone willing to work with these youth.”
The pandemic has also diminished the number of volunteers because some are not comfortable with entering homes to pick up or deliver furniture. Because Paparella is the only staff member and relies heavily on those volunteers, she considered a new option to keep youth she’s previously served involved with the organization.
“I was able to reach out and asked if they wanted a side gig, and I’ve actually been able to hire some of them to do deliveries for us,” she says. Paparella provides them with masks and gloves and information about how to stay safe when picking up and delivering items.
“It’s been pretty awesome. It’s given them experience with delivery and service work to add to a resume, and if they can show up to work on time and be dependable and accomplish certain tasks, I can recommend them to other companies for more full time, sustainable work.”
Paparella has high hopes for the future of Chair-ity, including a five-year goal to expand into every Ohio county and ultimately, have a national presence. But she says one of the most rewarding moments was meeting the girl from her childhood that inspired Paparella to start Chair-ity in the first place.
“We were able to serve her, and it was such a good way to close that chapter and know my initial goal of helping her came true and came to fruition. It was such a special moment.”
If you would like to donate or volunteer, visit www.chair-ity.org. Paparella’s rule of thumb? “If you wouldn’t give the furniture to your own kids, please don’t give it to ours.”
Photos provided by Maria Paparella.
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at email@example.com.
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