SALT LAKE CITY — For more than three years, Ivan Macias felt a little like Harry Potter when he was living under the stairs, unwanted and unloved by nearly everyone he met.
Never knowing his father and given up by his mother to the foster care system at age 16, he spent his prime teen years shuffling from one home to the next, always feeling that he was a burden and didn’t fit in.
After high school graduation, when he turned 18 and was too old to live in a foster home, Macias knew exactly where he was headed: the streets. “There weren’t a lot of options — with no money and no job, I was pretty sure I’d be homeless,” he says.
But before he could pack his duffel bag, Macias received some happy news. A foster care worker told him about the Utah Youth Mentor Project, a program that matches teens who have aged out of state care with volunteers who provide friendship, advice and help with everything from finding an apartment to balancing a checkbook.
“I knew nothing about living on my own, but it was always my dream to have a little place and go to college,” he says. “Nobody in my family ever believed in me, and it was easy to doubt myself. I just needed a little help.”
While unloading boxes at a charity project for the Christmas Box House, Macias met Judy Schiffman, 63, a new mentor who was impressed by the teen’s work ethic and contagious smile.
“Ivan, you're such a hard worker,” she told him. “What do you want to do in life?”
Macias didn’t hesitate. “I’d really like to go to college, but I don’t think I’ll be able to,” he said.
“Oh, yes, you will, Ivan,” Schiffman responded. “I am going to be your mentor.”
For the first time in his young life, “I felt a connection with somebody and knew that I wasn’t alone,” says Macias, now 19 and living in a small but tidy one-bedroom apartment near Trolley Square. “Judy is like a mom to me. I know that whenever I need help or just somebody to talk to, I can call her and she’ll be there.”
Eager to discuss how the mentor project has changed his life, Macias recently met me for a Free Lunch of grilled chicken salads with Schiffman during a break in his classes at Salt Lake Community College. An engaging young man with neatly cropped dark hair and a dimpled smile, he admits that he wasn’t easy for his mom to live with when he was growing up in Kearns.
“We were having some problems,” he says, “and I have to admit that I was pushing her buttons. But I was shocked when my mom sent me to live with strangers in foster care. I thought, ‘Why me?’ My three other brothers were still living with her. I felt like an outcast.”
Three years later, thanks to help from Schiffman, he’s now receiving financial aid for an apartment and tuition, with the goal of starting his own small business someday.
“He’s such a terrific kid — I consider him like family,” says Schiffman, who regularly takes Macias to lunch to check on his progress and invites him to parties with her four grown children and 16 grandchildren. “It really doesn’t take a lot of time. There are hundreds of kids like Ivan who need someone to care.”
Macias raises his cup of chai to Schiffman and blinks back tears. “I couldn’t do this without her,” he says. “She’s helped me realize that I have a future. I had to grow up really fast, and being on my own is a lot tougher than I thought it would be. But I know I’m going to make it.
“And when I do, I’m going to be a mentor for somebody else. You know — pass the hope along.”
For more information or to volunteer, visit youthmentorproject.org.
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