Laura Drescher, an engineer by trade, married into a family of child welfare workers.
Husband, mother-in-law, sister-in-law. So Drescher heard lots of shop talk at the dinner table. But all of it in the abstract.
Pass the potatoes.
Then Drescher met Aubri Thompson and all that talk came to life in a girl whose mother and two brothers had died and who had lived in — she thinks — 21 foster homes and attended 13 high schools, never long enough to make lasting friends.
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“I didn’t have anybody, not really,” Aubri said.
When she finally got together with Drescher and her husband, Bryan, through a mentoring program, they changed one another’s lives.
And maybe lives well down the road.
From aging out of the foster system, being unprepared for life on her own and feeling pretty much alone, Aubri found new hope in Laura and Bryan. They took her to a family Christmas gathering — she even got the traditional new pajamas.
Laura, a civil and environmental engineer at Burns & McDonnell, and Bryan will soon move into an old building in Kansas City, Kan., that used to be a convent.
Eight boys in foster care will live downstairs, and eight girls upstairs. The Dreschers, who have no children, will live in the middle.
The place is in the 3500 block of Wood Avenue. Big white building with a bright blue door.
Thus, the Blue Door Project, a new group home and shelter started by the couple and others in Bryan’s family to help foster kids, particularly the older ones facing the same problems as Aubri, who now works and attends college.
The color blue, according to the flier, symbolizes strength, freedom and new beginnings.
“Aubri was my catalyst for all this,” said Laura, who will keep her engineering job. “But this family was meant to do this.”
Carla Drescher, Bryan’s mother and the former director of behavioral health for Kansas, will serve as executive director. Her husband, Phil, said of Laura: “She’s an engineer, but she has a social worker’s heart.”
“They sucked me in,” a smiling Laura, 28, said of her husband’s family.
Then she turned serious and started rattling off statistics like the ones she used to hear at the dinner table: Half of foster kids age out without getting a high school diploma. Many will be homeless at some point.
Aubri, now 20, is too old for Blue Door, but she showed up on a recent Sunday to help get the place ready for an open house.
Laura wanted her to paint the door blue.
Of Laura and Bryan, Aubri said: “Most of my life I was a case number; that I didn’t matter. They showed me I do matter.”
Chance at stability
Think of your high school years.
Now imagine going to 13 schools and moving every few months.
That’s reality for some kids. And when some age out of foster care at 18, they sometimes lack the most basic of skills: shopping, budgeting, taking care of a car, cooking, housekeeping and healthy eating. Some don’t even have a driver’s license.
“Just seeing how a married couple lives day to day,” Laura said. “They’re going to see me go to work everyday. I will take them shopping. I’m going to teach them how to cook.”
Aubri remembers the feelings of first being on her own.
“Overwhelmed,” she said.
There are resources to help, she quickly added. But a lot of kids don’t know where those are or whom to ask for help. Things for her went smoother when when she met the Dreschers through Youthrive, an initiative that supports foster youth as they transition out of the system to adulthood.
“I think I always had the stigma of being a foster kid, but it never mattered with Laura and Bryan and their families,” Aubri said.
Youthrive founder Tim Gay attended a Blue Door open house recently and said such a facility could provide much needed stability in the lives of older foster kids.
“This family (the Dreschers) not only wanted to do something like this for a long time, but they have the experience to make it work,” Gay said.
Carla Drescher, who has worked 25 years in child welfare, said that many young people face the same challenges as Aubri and that Blue Door will help fill gaps so some kids don’t have to move so often.
“If this works, this place will be the first of several in the metro area,” she said.
The organization bought the old convent last fall for $175,000. JE Dunn Construction will oversee a budgeted $300,000 renovation. Some of the work will be donated. The hope is to open by August in time for the school year.
The Blue Door Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, is accepting donations to help get started. After that, Drescher said, it will operate on an annual budget of $750,000, most of that coming from the per diem rate provided to foster care providers.
For Aubri, who studies theater at Kansas City Kansas Community College, she’s back to feeling a bit overwhelmed.
“I was a foster kid all those years and I never even had anybody to spend holidays with,” she said inside the Blue Door house. “There were times when I thought nobody cared.
“It’s kind of crazy that I can help inspire something like this.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182