One day, when Michael Kelly was 15, he was greeted at school by a court official who told him not to come home after class. That’s how he found out he was in foster care.
Kelly’s parents divorced when he was 7 and his family struggled with mental illness and addiction. He was first sent to live with an uncle and aunt, later with a grandmother. Her three sisters were placed in foster homes with strangers in northeast Minnesota; he never lived with them again.
In the years to come, he moved 15 times to the Duluth area, attended five different schools, and experienced poverty.
During those difficult years, Kelly vowed to himself that one day he would help young people in foster care through the hardships he experienced. Now 24 and a freshman at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Kelly is working to keep that promise.
The result is MD link, a program founded by Kelly that pairs medical students as mentors with young people who have been placed in foster care, homeless, victims of physical or sexual abuse, food insecurity, human trafficking and other challenges. The program also trains mentors to work more effectively with vulnerable young people, learning to better understand young people’s perspectives in the hope that one day they will be more responsive and potentially more medically effective healthcare providers. .
So far, a few dozen mentors have received training and are expected to be matched with mentees this month, Kelly said. At least a few dozen other students have expressed interest in joining the program; incoming students will be notified of the opportunity when they arrive in the fall.
When mentors and mentees come together, they don’t need to spend all of their time in intense discussions, Kelly said. Depending on their interests, they can play basketball, apply for scholarships, or go to a café “and talk about life”.
Back when he was still in foster care, Kelly said to himself, “I’m not going to let my life go and continue this cycle.”
After being placed in foster care, Kelly attended St. John’s University, working evenings as a janitor to pay his fees. During school vacations, when the dormitories were closed, he surfed on the couch or went on mission or service trips for room and board.
“I never had to sleep rough, but I definitely didn’t have a bed or a room of my own,” Kelly said. “It was very, very difficult. There were a lot of trials and tribulations that I had to go through.”
In 2021, he conducted research on a bill to create a state office of the Foster Youth Ombudsman, which the Minnesota Legislature passed that year.
“I will change the cycle personally myself,” he said. “Here today in medical school, it’s time for me to help the next person in line.”
“A Different Path”
Contributing to the effort is Emmanuel Fale, 27, also a first-year medical student at U who, at Kelly’s request, became co-chairman of MD Link. Fale, too, has “always been passionate” about helping troubled youth.
Fale didn’t endure the same hardships as Kelly, but he grew up with food and housing insecurity, dividing his time between his parents’ homes. His mother lived in a campground in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and his father lived in an apartment on the south side of St. Cloud, where Fale lived among young people from low-income families.
Fale became involved with the NAACP and the St. Cloud African American Men’s Forum.
“I had the opportunity to get mentorship early in my life,” Fale said. “I understand how central that mentorship has been to the way I do things. … I was shown a different path by having black role models.”
Fale was volunteering at the U when Kelly approached him and asked him to join MD Link.
“I think it’s phenomenal, honestly,” he said. “We have a good group of mentors who we put through rigorous training.” These mentors were chosen, he noted, “because of the populations we work with.”
Youth Mentoring Better Togetherpart of Minneapolis’ Rebound education, advocacy and rehabilitation organization, is one of the few programs partnered with MD Link to match mentors with vulnerable youth. Better Together works with youth on probation in Hennepin County.
“We partnered up so I could tap into their volunteers and they could tap into my program,” said Will Tabor, 41, who has run his program for 16 years.
“Since we started talking a couple of months ago, I’ve been able to share some of my practice decks with them. They’ve been able to share new things that I hadn’t researched. I can’t to think of a partnership that went so well, so quickly.”
MD Link also worked closely with Mo Hicks, also a first-year medical student at U (and class president) who specializes in training mentors for young people who have experienced trauma. People who volunteer as mentors often come from more privileged backgrounds and may not be familiar with the types of trauma the young people they work with have endured, Hicks said.
Hicks teaches mentors to try to refrain from judging their mentee’s behaviors or life experiences and instead “meet them where they are.”
It’s about “allowing them to lead the conversation instead of asserting our own beliefs,” Hicks said.
For example, in mentoring a chemical abuser, the approach would not be to lecture on the dangers of substance abuse, but to “discuss the benefits the mentee derives from substance abuse, his knowledge of why he uses it, what he thinks are the challenges of not using it.”
This nonjudgmental approach — called cultural humility — is a change from how doctors have typically been trained, Hicks said.
MD Link is growing rapidly, Kelly said. The participants set up a research project, the university faculty considered adding the program to the curriculum of the medical school and perhaps other departments as well – such as the faculties of pharmacy, dentistry and law – and possibly rename it U Link. Even professors from other local colleges have shown interest.
It appears to be the only such program in the country, Kelly said. “In our preliminary research, we don’t see anywhere in the country with this kind of pairing.” Research from the project could be used to spread the concept.
Meanwhile, participants are working to gain nonprofit status and plan to hold a fundraiser on October 14.
“We’re sitting on a golden egg,” Kelly said. “I’m going to make that happen.”
MD Link will provide opportunities that Kelly has spent years planning.
“I know what it’s like to not have the resources, to feel lonely, to not live the life I want to live. I want to change course to [others] don’t have to go through things that I went through as a kid,” he said.
“I joke that medicine is sort of secondary.”