There’s not much to recommend the view outside Immerse’s youth center in southwest Little Rock. Across the street sits the carcass of a derelict fast food drive-in, its windows battened and scarred with graffiti. Next to that sits a low-slung motel sporting a grimy marquee and daily or weekly rates; down the street, a man hawks hubcaps from a curbside perch.
Eric Gilmore sees a different landscape, however, standing in the middle of the headquarters building of the organization he and his wife Kara launched in 2010. From here he sees the space, the people within it and the organization that inextricably binds them one to another as the conveyance that moves young people to healing, an often-neglected precursor to life after the foster care system.
“We say our mission, our goal, is to transform youth from crisis into overcomers,” Gilmore said, hence the name of the center, Overcomer Central, or more commonly The OC. Asked what inspired that mission, Gilmore relates an experience the couple had while working as house parents.
“There was a girl, her name was Megan,” Eric said. “She’d been in about 50 different placements between the ages of 12 and 18. The day after her 18th birthday, she was dropped off at the Greyhound bus stop, she was given one bag of clothes and one night’s worth of her bipolar medication and a one-way bus pass to Fort Smith.”
“We were there. We waved good-bye to the bus. That was kind of that marker moment that really made us want to do something to get involved.”
Many kids who age out of foster care do so with street smarts and defense mechanisms, but little in the way of coping with the pain in their life. This unresolved pain hamstrings their ability to move on with their lives be it continuing their education or getting and holding a job. As statistics readily illustrate, the outcome is all-too-often a self-destructive one.
The Gilmores created within Immerse a framework to help prevent kids from being summarily dropped into the adult world without any help in moving past their trauma.
“For some of those young people, they’re able to make it and they walk into some good things,” Gilmore said. “They find some existing family members or somebody that’s ready and waiting to take them in, or they’ve built some supportive connections while they were in foster care and they’re able to piece that together.”
“There’s a whole other group of young people that age out and they come to find out – it’s hard to say this – that they just don’t have anybody that’s there to help them make that transition and make that journey. Because of the trauma they’ve had, they try to cope through drugs or spending time with people they shouldn’t or getting caught up in prostitution, just trying to survive.”
Immerse seeks to intervene and provide the direction, community and healing kids in the system so desperately need. The organization’s programs follow two tracks, what Gilmore called the youth side and the family side. On the family side, Immerse provides assistance to foster and adoptive parents to help them adequately support their family members.
“We just did a family camp over spring break where we’re pouring into them and creating a space for those families to connect, encourage and build memories,” he said. “We do a moms’ retreat in the fall for about 100 moms. We do a father/son camp. We do what we call the Village Conference which is training an extended network for foster and adoptive families, people such as teachers and Sunday school workers. We equip them and help them understand how to help kids heal.”
“It ends up looking like a lot of different things, but at the end of the day, we just say we’re about building tribes for these kids and then making sure those kids and their tribes have the tools that they need to be successful.”
The youth services are mainly administered at The OC, where kids find help getting a job, connecting to a school, getting a mentor and generally experiencing the kind of community and permanence many have never had before. As the group has grown its focus to include homeless kids, runaways and trafficking victims, its services have become even more fundamental – a hot meal, showers, laundry facilities, a bus pass.
Immerse also owns or rents multiple houses in a nearby neighborhood where individuals can levelize the many things bombarding them as they try to get their past, present and future all put into proper working order. And there is plenty for most of these kids to overcome. Things that intact families generally never have to think about – or can scarcely imagine – have probably walked through Immerse’s doors just in the past few months.
Even for those who find a forever family or have worked to create positive opportunities – and there are many, whom the staff here celebrate with pride – shadows of past trauma and the raspy clutch of present temptations are never far off.
“So you’ve taken the kid off the foster list, they have a family, now what happens? What do you actually do when the young person needs to heal?” Gilmore said. “Maybe they’ve bounced around in the system or they’ve experienced a lot of abuse and neglect. What does it look like now, as a newly-formed family, to make sure that kid is getting the love, support and structure they need to become whole?”
“It’s a huge victory to get a kid in a family but then it’s trying to figure out, OK, now what do we do? A lot of times, that’s when the work starts.”
The Immerse staff dives into that work every day, even as they envision a more ambitious future of the organization. In one corner of the OC stands a hopeful architectural rendering of what the building will one day look like after an extensive renovation that only lacks the funding to commence. Immerse is adept at creating partnerships – thanks in part to its ambitious, diverse board – thus ensuring every dollar is well-spent. This, and the organization’s proven approach, allows Gilmore to dream big.
“I would say that right now we’re probably just scratching the surface. We’re probably doing about 20 percent of what we want to do.” he said. “We want there to be more overcomers in Arkansas; more kids that have gone from a place of crisis to a place of healing and wholeness.”
To learn more about Immerse, to make a donation or to get involved, please visit immersearkansas.org.
Immerse, along with The CALL and Project Zero, benefit from the upcoming Walk for the Waiting. To register for the May 4 event or to make a donation, please visit www.walkforthewaiting.org.
To learn about the steps to become a foster or adoptive family, please visit www.fosterarkansas.org/dcfs/fosterarkansas/.
Older kids, especially those part of a sibling group, are far less likely to find a forever home than younger, single children. To learn more about some of them in Arkansas, please click on the links below.