About two years ago, a small national organization called Open Table found its way to our door. They’d been referred by a mutual friend at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a higher-up there we knew from his days as director of mental health services in Connecticut.
He knew we were interested in how faith communities could be harnessed on behalf of vulnerable young people; we’d done three large studies on the topic (within the broader context of spiritual-based programs in youth services). He also knew that Open Table was potentially powerful — so powerful that SAMHSA itself had decided to fund demonstration projects in its Systems of Care communities around the country.
We, of course, are primarily interested in young people. What intrigued us was that, at first blush, Open Table seemed capable of doing the one thing that the traditional social service system had never been able to do: stick with youth over time, not as paid professionals but as actual friends.
At first blush, Open Table seemed capable of doing the one thing that the traditional social service system had never been able to do: stick with youth over time, not as paid professionals but as actual friends.
The idea isn’t terribly complicated. Open Table partners with an interested congregation that commits to hosting one or more year-long “Tables.” Congregations buy a program license, and six to eight volunteers per Table are trained in how to support a person transitioning from poverty. The congregation partners with a local social service agency, and from that agency gets referrals to clients who both want and are deemed ready to receive help. Open Table recipients (in faith-community fashion, they are referred to as “Brother” or “Sister”) are diverse: in the seven years since Open Table began, recipients have been homeless LGBTQ youth, ex-offenders re-entering the community, single mothers in recovery from substance addiction, and young people aging out of foster care. They may have mental health issues, or addictions, or felonies behind them; no matter their circumstances, all of them are looking for a way to move forward.
In congregational settings, private homes and restaurants, Table volunteers begin meeting with their Brother or Sister once a week, where they work through a structured series of steps based on the recipient’s personal goals. Each Table’s progress is closely monitored and supported by the program itself, which employs mental health consultants. Tables are not about treatment, though, or even social work — and that distinction is important. It is skilled group mentoring that emphasizes friendship above all.
In the language of our field, Open Table provides “aftercare,” and organic aftercare at that, based on real relationships with people who are personally invested in caring. The assumption is that Table volunteers bring two essential things to the process: 1) their “human capital,” or the connections and know-how to navigate ordinary life, and 2) their willingness to non-judgmentally walk alongside a person experiencing profound yet surmountable problems. Evaluations to date show that for the recipients, the Table process is a bridge to education, better jobs, and long-term relationships. For volunteers, the process provides eye-opening exposure to the realities of poverty.
(For those wondering, as we did, about the religious content: Open Table doesn’t allow proselytizing and isn’t about winning converts. In fact, it doesn’t allow any religious language whatsoever unless requested by the person being helped.)
We were so interested in the potential of Open Table that we became evaluators to it, joining a group of consultants that includes John VanDenBerg, the wraparound services pioneer. For our part, we’re going to keep talking about Open Table and looking hard at how much of the missing piece it can be for young people trying to find their footing. We encourage youth service providers to take a look as well.
By Melanie Wilson
Youth Catalytics Director of Research
How does Open Table look in practice? Watch Jessica, a former foster youth who became homeless after aging out of the system in Texas, explain it.