For more than 25 years, Lori Morris has been dedicated to helping teens and young adults in crisis.
“The older youth—I personally think they are the most vulnerable of the population,” Morris says. “Once children hit around 12 or so, they’re less likely to be adopted. These youths never stop wanting to have a permanent home and a permanent family.”
On July 17, Morris became the new executive director of LifeTies, a non-profit based in Ewing. Its mission is to serve youth in crisis due to abuse, neglect, homelessness, sexual orientation, gender and chronic illnesses. LifeTies’ focus is on providing housing and services for these youth because of the little or no family support that they have.
Morris, a resident of West Windsor, says she believes that one of the greatest challenges for the youth in their program is “having successful relationships with adults, because many adults have disappointed them in their lives. The staff is tremendous in working with them on that.”
“What’s critical is making sure the youth have connections and resources once they leave here,” Morris says. “So many of them are really intelligent, amazing kids, and it’s not their fault. A majority of them have been living in poverty—it’s a systemic issue.”
Morris is looking to continue to provide care for these teens and young adults as well as expand LifeTies’ services. Currently she is looking for volunteers for two different programs.
The first is Teenage Independent Living Training Mentoring, a program that is already in place and is designed for adults to spend some one-on-one time with teens or young adults. It involves spending four hours per month with a youth and providing any kind of service, whether it be tutoring or an opportunity to shadow the adult at his or her job.
TILT connects Mercer County adult volunteers to LifeTies’ youth. Through this program, participants are provided with the education and connections they need to let them be successful after they leave the system.
The second program is skill-based and is intended not only for individuals but also for larger corporations. It can be a series of sessions on different types of life skills, such as a counselor that offers a series of college interview prep lessons or a bank that holds several financial advising and budgeting sessions. One day events are also popular, such as a company that helps with painting a group home.
“There is so much to offer, and it’s gratifying for mentors, too,” Morris says. “I’m confident Mercer County is going to pull through in a big way in providing mentoring and skill-based volunteers.”
LifeTies was founded in 1982 and was then called Mercer County Adolescent Coalition. At the time, it was a way to unite service providers for teens. Quickly it became clear that older teens with little chance of adoption were in need of homes where they could live in safety and comfort. LifeTies, which became the name in 1991, consists of three housing programs as well as a mentoring program for transitioning young adults into independent life.
Triad House was the first group home to be established, in 1985. It originally housed teens who had suffered physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. In 2008, it became the only housing program in New Jersey to have a specialization in LGBTQ youth, though teens and young adults of any orientation can reside there. Today it houses 10 youths ages 16-21.
In 1990, Rainbow House was formed as a haven for HIV-infected pregnant girls and their children. In 2009, it expanded to include young women with severe chronic illnesses like lupus, diabetes, and asthma. Currently 12 females and three babies live in Rainbow House.
Mary’s Place, created in 2005, is different because it is not a single group home. The program is intended for young adults ages 18-21 who are transitioning to living on their own as they work or continue post-secondary education.
Participants are placed in an apartment, occasionally with a roommate from the same program. Currently there are three apartments: two young adults living on their own and two as roommates.
Many of LifeTies’ participants were referred through the Children’s System of Care, which is part of the state Department of Children and Families. Youth in need use a company called PerformCare to express a desire for housing, after which they are recommended to a group home based on the young person’s challenges and the group home’s specialization. The residents of Mary’s Place are referred through the state Department of Child Protection and Permanency.
“Youth come from all over the state because of the specialties,” Morris says of LifeTies’ unique offerings.
Morris was born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and is one of four children. Her father was a businessman and her mother spent her life volunteering for a myriad of organizations, including Blair County Civic Music, Family and Children Services, Easter Seal Society, and the Home Nursing Board. She won the NAACP Person of the Year Award for her service, among several other accolades.
“I just grew up thinking this is what you do: you help other people and give back,” says Morris.
One of Morris’ brothers is developmentally disabled and lives in a group home in Pittsburgh.
“Having a disabled brother made all of us very sensitive to various issues and challenges that come up for people. It sensitized us to the obstacles that come up for people, and the possibilities available at the same time,” says Morris.
Morris graduated from Smith College in 1982 and earned her Ph.D. in Sociology from Northwestern University in 1989. The day after she finished her thesis, she and her husband, Lawrence McGill, moved to Princeton in order to be closer to job opportunities in New York and Philadelphia. In 1994 they moved to West Windsor.
Morris worked as a research scientist at Educational Testing Service for seven years, starting in 1988. One day she saw a blurb in the newspaper advertising a need for Mercer County Superior Court judiciary volunteers that would serve on the Child Placement Review Board and review child abuse and neglect cases that came through the court system.
“Something just drew me to that blurb,” Morris explains. She started volunteering for the review board in 1992, after she had her first child, Mason, who is now 26.
Morris started working as a consultant at Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural and Policy Studies in 1996 in order to have more flexibility as a mother (she had another child: Adam, now 23). All the while, she continued to volunteer for the Child Placement Review Board.
“I was amazed that five miles away there was this whole other world where people were living in poverty and children were experiencing more trauma than the rest of us will experience in a lifetime,” she says of her time on the review board. “Personally I was increasingly more interested in that (child welfare issues).”
Her interest grew so much that in 1998 she began work as a consultant for the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts. Through her job she became familiar with Court Appointed Special Advocates, a national organization that recruits, screens and trains volunteers to advocate for children who are in the foster care system. Morris’ job was to collect baseline data on the handful of CASA programs that existed in New Jersey at that time.
“In a sense, I kind of went native,” Morris says with a laugh. “I started to think, we really need this program in Mercer County.” She co-founded CASA of Mercer County along with three colleagues. “We rolled up our sleeves, sat around my dining room table, did the paperwork, and became incorporated in December of 2000.” In the meantime, she had a daughter, Alanna, now 18.
Morris served as executive director of CASA for 15 years, including during and after the merger with CASA of Burlington County in 2011. When she left in February of 2016, the organization had 200 advocates that were serving over 320 children annually.
“I felt like we were at a stable place, but I wanted to do something with a larger impact,” says Morris of her departure from CASA. She worked as interim director for CASA of Union County for four months and then as interim director for CASA of Bergen County until June of this year, when a job opening became available at LifeTies.
“I feel very honored to be their first executive director,” Morris says. “With LifeTies, I have always been impressed. They have always been cutting edge.”
Visit lifeties.org to discover more about LifeTies and its mission and services.
There will be two information sessions held about the one-on-one mentoring program: Aug. 31 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Sept. 7 from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. To rsvp to the information sessions or just to learn more about becoming a volunteer mentor to youths in need, email email@example.com or call 609 771 1600. Use the same number to learn more about the skill-based volunteer program.