Tony Bess lowered his eyes to the table in front of him, avoiding eye contact.
Asked if he considered himself shy, he answered, “more just quiet.”
The interactions required for his new job as a sales representative with Complete Document Solutions in Frederick have forced him out of his comfort zone. But it was that discomfort that made the job so valuable — the best part of his experience with Manasseh House, he said.
Bess, 19, is one of two participants in the new program, which aims to help young men who have aged out of publicly funded programs such as foster care, or, in Bess’ case, Silver Oak Academy. Most programs end once children turn 18, although Maryland is one of 25 states that have extended foster care services until age 21.
At Silver Oak, a private residential facility in Keymar contracted by the state to offer education and rehabilitation for juvenile delinquents, participants age out at 18.
Bess didn’t want to talk about what landed him in Silver Oak. He was focused on his future, his vision “to change my life and be successful.”
The GED certificate he earned at Silver Oak, as well as the training to become a certified nurse’s assistant, put him on the path toward achieving this vision. The support and training he will receive through Manasseh House is intended to help him continue what he started.
It also aims to reduce the chances of homelessness, unemployment, criminal charges and other circumstances that research suggests those who age out of foster care and delinquency programs are statistically more likely to face.
These statistics, combined with her own observations, was why Gianna Talone-Sullivan started the program. The self-described “foundress” of Manasseh House had encountered many men like Bess through the mobile medical clinic she started, Mission of Mercy, as well as through volunteer work with other service agencies and foster care programs.
“They were on drugs, angry, depressed,” she said of male clients of Mission of Mercy.
Beneath those tough exteriors, Talone-Sullivan also saw a vulnerability, a “hunger” to be valued and appreciated. When given the respect they longed for, coupled with vocational training and educational opportunities, she saw her clients blossom.
She hoped Manasseh House would let her reach this demographic before they hit bottom, offering the emotional support and opportunities that are otherwise unavailable when they age out of public programs.
“This gives them a bridge,” Talone-Sullivan said “It’s a chance to learn the skills they need, and to learn the mentality that, ‘Yes, I can do this.’”
The program took in its first participants, Bess and fellow Silver Oak student Adrian Budd, in July. Both started work at Complete Document Solutions this month, learning the ins and outs of how to sell the Xerox-certified company’s products and services.
They have opened savings accounts to help increase their earnings. They recently learned a bit more about financial savings from a mentor with financial expertise.
For now, Bess and Budd are still living under supervision at Silver Oak, but Talone-Sullivan eventually plans to open a residential center in Frederick to house up to 12 participants, either from Silver Oak or foster care programs. Future participants might also have access to other types of jobs, mentors and education opportunities.
Funding remains the primary barrier to growth; Talone-Sullivan estimated a cost of $20,000 per participant. A recent $19,000 donation from Lentini Auto Salvage, a New Jersey-based auto parts company, will help bolster the startup funds from private donors and other company contributions.
As Talone-Sullivan looks toward her organization’s future, Bess and Budd have started planning the lives they want to lead after they graduate from Manasseh House. Program participants can stay for up to two years as long as they abide by program rules, including staying drug- and alcohol-free and attending a church of their choosing.
Budd hopes to pursue a degree in criminal justice, although he could see himself working in sales as well, he said.
Both Budd and Bess have made significant strides in their few weeks of training at Complete Document Solutions, said JT Vitale, company vice president.
“They’re really starting to open up,” he said.
Though Bess still finds the prospect of approaching a stranger to ask questions and sell products a bit intimidating, it has gotten better, Bess said. The support of his co-workers also helps him feel at ease.
“It’s like a family. Everybody cares about you,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter what you did before — they’re not going to judge you for it,” Budd added."