From West to East, Dynamic Managers Robbie Rubet and Mukesh Baral Lead Expanded FOCUS Program Across Massachusetts

Headshots of Robbie Rubet and Mukesh Baral

In the seven years since Friends of Children launched its award-winning FOCUS program for young adults aging out of foster care at our headquarters in Western, Massachusetts, word of the program’s success has spread far and wide. We’ve heard from young adults throughout the state–and the nation–with requests to participate. Friends of Children has responded to those calls for support. 

In January 2023, following a period of working with FOCUS as part of the practicum for her Master of Social Work degree, Robbie Rubet, who has worked with youth impacted by foster care for more than 24 years, took the helm as manager of the Western Region of the FOCUS program. 

Shortly thereafter, we were thrilled to announce the expansion of this crucial program to a second location to serve the Eastern part of Massachusetts, including Boston. At that time, activist and child welfare specialist Mukesh Baral became manager of the new Eastern region of our FOCUS program. 

Across more than two decades of professional work serving children and families involved with the child welfare system, Robbie Rubert has become known for her ability to connect youth to resources–and to advocate for and empower young people. Robbie’s passion fuels her work heading the Western region of FOCUS. 

As Co-Founder of Advocacy for Refugee and Immigrant Services for Empowerment (ARISE) in Boston, Mukesh Baral holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. As a trained mediator, acting against injustice and supporting vulnerable people has always defined Mukesh’s work. Mukesh has served in the child welfare domain for more than a decade in multiple roles, making him a natural fit to manage the Eastern region of FOCUS..

We asked Robbie and Mukesh to share their thoughts about FOCUS with us on separate occasions, and we’ve condensed their responses here:

What drew you to the work of FOCUS?

Robbie Rubet: Throughout my career in social work, I have interacted with foster children in many different capacities. I quickly realized that children and youth in foster care don’t get the support and relationships they need to thrive. Whether it’s for a week, a year, or an entire childhood, any amount of time in foster care is disruptive and negatively impacts social/emotional development and overall well-being. Seeing a system, overburdened, unprepared, and at times unwilling to help these vulnerable children in the way they needed it, ignited a passion in me to want to do more. Landing at Friends of Children for my clinical internship in 2022 and being given the opportunity to stay on as an employee, gave me the opportunity I was looking for to help young adults with foster care experience connect to the relationships and resources they need to find success and wellness in whatever way they define that. We can’t change the past but we can help young adults look towards the future with hope and autonomy. 

Mukesh Baral: I was drawn to the program’s model and its history of success. FOCUS delivers need-based services one-on-one with the help of a mentor. Mentors, who are vetted and matched with consideration of the individual needs of participating youth, must be interested in investing in  relationships that are compassionate, caring, and consistent. These qualities are key to the relationships our young people need to thrive. 

Who are the young adults you are finding and how do you connect with them?

Robbie Rubet: FOCUS young adults are young adults ages 18-26 who have experienced any length or type of foster care. They are all unique and have their personal strengths and areas of their lives where they are facing challenges and would like support. Since FOCUS is voluntary and the young adult is in the driver’s seat throughout their time with us, we only take self-referrals. Young adults find us through their own advocacy efforts and through information provided to them by DCF, mental health providers, schools, and other community providers. However they find us, we meet them where they are in their lives.

Mukesh Baral: The young adults, I am finding, are extremely motivated to change the trajectory of their lives. They represent different races, religions, and sexual orientations. Attorneys, social workers, and programs working with youth also tell youth about our services. Regardless of where participants come from, there is one theme that binds them together. Most of them do not have a caring, compassionate and consistent adult in their lives with an ability to support them through the transition to independent adulthood. After spending a decade working in child welfare, I am aware how inconsistencies have consistently become part of their lives. Keeping all that in mind, I help youth understand why FOCUS is a different program and how we have mentors committed to long-term relationships. We can provide a space for transition-aged youth to develop the trusting bonds they need to achieve their short-term and long-term goals.

What takeaway would you like those reading Fostering Change to have? 

Mukesh Baral: I want the readers to understand that the child welfare system is a big mammoth that in some ways has lost touch with the children. The state is marred with constant social worker change and attorneys who are overextended. The very kids that the department takes into custody to save are getting out of the system unprepared to take on the challenges of independent living. The constant placement changes and the safety concerns around relationships has put them in a space where they have lost connections with their loved ones and haven’t built new relationships. Most of them crave for a relationship that is meaningful but fear to make that first step. You can be a mentor and take that first step. The system needs to be changed upstream, but till that happens, we need caring and compassionate people like you to be mentors for the possible positive intervention and support sought by the FOCUS program.

Robbie Rubet: It is critical that when we think and talk about transition-aged youth that we do so in a way that reflects that they are purposeful, creative, and whole. They are not broken or in need of repair. Young adults do not come to us looking for unwanted advice or to tell them what they need to do. They do not need to be fixed, they need someone who can listen, guide, support, and empower them. It is through genuine and supportive relationships that they can begin to heal from the past and begin to look toward a brighter future. 

Boston: A New Frontier for FOCUS

With its challenging cost-of-living and unique complexities, Boston and Eastern Massachusetts represent new territory for FOCUS. 

Manager Mukesh Baral shared some additional thoughts:

What does your work look like as you bring the FOCUS program to Eastern MA?

Mukesh Baral: The work looks unending but rewarding. It’s digging the old connections and talking about the program. It’s building alliances with programs that the youth can benefit from. It’s meeting stakeholders and creating partnerships. It’s finding and recruiting mentors who are absolutely sold that relationships are foundational to change. It’s making them (the mentors) understand how this is an opportunity to not just give back but learn from the experience. It’s explaining to both the mentors and youth how the program is youth-centric, not grant-centric. It’s encouraging mentors to explore positive youth development strategies while working with youth. It’s making mentors aware that their youth are in the driving seat and just need support to help navigate the complexities of the transition to adulthood.

What are your hopes for the new FOCUS Eastern region for this first year?

Mukesh Baral: The program has a lot of potential. Based on the current interest of youth and mentors, I see it becoming a formidable force in Greater Boston within a couple of years. We want to train at least a dozen mentors and match them with youths this year.