How a former Toronto foster child is helping others exit the system

Toronto's Anayah Phares struggled after leaving foster care at age 17. She now runs a program helping young people facing those same challenges.

Anayah Phares' CHEERS program has connected 15 young people with mentors

Anayah Phares, 27, has received the Queen's Young Leaders award for her work with youth in care.

Ten years after leaving her foster home, Toronto's Anayah Phares is leading a charge to better support the city's young people exiting the child welfare system.

"I had no support, absolutely none," recalled Phares, 27, who will be speaking at the Children's Aid Foundation's five14 forum on Thursday, held in advance of Ontario's Children and Youth in Care Day on May 14.

At 17, a year before Phares officially "aged out" of care, she left her foster home, and found herself alone and unprepared for life as an independent adult.

"All of a sudden I'm having to remember to pay rent, and waking myself up for school and making my meals, all of these things and I was 17 at the time and it's a lot for a 17-year-old," she said.

Before long, Phares was homeless, depressed and entertaining thoughts of suicide.

"I didn't have anyone that I could count on, that I could call, that I could say, 'Hey I need help,'" she said.

In a bid to make sure young people leaving foster care don't repeat her experience, Phares created the CHEERS program, an acronym for Creating Hope and Ensuring Excellent Roads to Success.

CHEERS connects young people preparing to leave the child welfare system with mentors who have already completed the transition. The program is funded by the Children's Aid Foundation and operates out of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre.

Since launching in November, CHEERS has connected 15 young people with mentors, including Muginga Antonio.

The 28-year-old says she's become something of a big sister to the teen she's mentoring, and supports her with advice and stories from her experience transitioning to independence.

"It's been really rewarding to be able to provide that to somebody, because I didn't have that when I was in the system" Antonio said.

A call to extend support

In Ontario, support for youth in care generally ends at age 18. Phares says that's too young and has created a need for mentorship programs like CHEERS.

"I think if the age were raised, young people would have more time to develop emotionally, psychologically and their needs would look completely different," said Phares.

She's calling on the province to raise the age when youth are cut off from care. According to the Children's Aid Foundation, that extra time would be especially valuable given the unique challenges of life in foster care.

The foundation has already taken that step to help youths who've aged out of the system, but it can take years before a former foster child is ready to become independent.

"Our programs run in some cases up to [age] 25 and sometimes in our education programs up to 30, because our kids take longer to launch basically," Valerie McMurtry, president and CEO of the Children's Aid Foundation.

While she continues to advocate for extended support, Phares at least has the assurance that her CHEERS program has already secured funding for at least five more years.

"It makes my heart smile to see how invested both the peer mentors and the youth are in having this space," she said.