LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Every year, about 250 youth ages 18 to 21 age out of Arkansas’ foster care system without a permanent family connection (source), and and countless other teens find themselves in similar crisis situations. Those situations include homelessness, victims of sex trafficking, and more.
A young Arkansan couple, Eric and Kara Gilmore, recognized that gap several years ago, and have dedicated their lives to filling it. They founded Immerse Arkansas, an organization that provides services including transitional housing, mentoring, guidance, and support structures for youth who do not have those built-in structures available to them.
Before there was any official organization in place, the Gilmores were a couple who felt called to work with and for youth aging out of foster care. One young woman who they developed a relationship with really opened their eyes to the lack of structure that traditional families and communities provide to help young people be successful.
“She filled out her job applications with a pink highlighter,” Kara recalled as an example of what kind of guidance was needed. “She just didn’t know how to do life.”
Early on, the Gilmores hoped to establish a supportive housing project, where youth could go to live and receive guidance and mentoring at the same time. But they needed the collaboration of others who were willing to take the leap of faith with them. Churches, volunteers, and landlords saw the potential for good and stepped up.
“It was just a joint effort of (people who said), ‘Let’s try this, and let’s see if we can put something together that will give these youth a path as they’re transitioning out of foster care.'”
The program quickly expanded beyond the transitional housing program. There are now targeted programs, lessons, and coaches assigned to the youth to guide them through everything from teaching them how to cook to encourage and support them to obtain a GED.
Gina and Wade Radke, who volunteer at Immerse and serve as transitional coaches, say the thing that makes the Gilmores unique is that they have immersed themselves among the people they are serving.
“They don’t come in from the suburbs and drive in and say, ‘I’m going to help these youth that need it, and go home to a nice little gated community,'” Gina said. “They live two blocks over from the homes that the youth live in.”
This past January, the same week they were informed of their Community Service Award, the Gilmores called KARK News to tell us that random gunfire had entered their home, and a bullet was lodged in the living room wall where their 3-year-old son was playing.
While many families would pack up and move out after something like that, the Gilmores decided to double down.
“There’s real risk (in staying),” Eric told KARK 4 News the next day. “(But) what’s the risk if we leave? What’s the risk to the kids that we care about here? What’s the risk to the youth here that we’re trying to teach to give back to their neighborhood and to care about others?”
“No matter what has been brought up against them, they are here for these kids,” Gina said. “It’s their goal to see their neighborhood change.”
But the Gilmores are quick to pass any praise they get onto the brave youth they serve.
“We aren’t the story, ” Eric said. “These youth are overcoming incredible odds to do amazing things, (and) we’re just scratching the surface of what’s needed “
“They are just beautiful people that we’ve gotten to come across,” Kara said. “So whatever we’ve journeyed is just completely worth it.
Immerse is in need of volunteers for everything from bookkeeping to baking birthday cakes. Click here to see a full list of volunteer opportunities.