Pathways Young Adult Program helps foster kids who age out of the system


So many successful Black-owned businesses start out with the founders identifying a problem, and then finding a way to solve that problem.

Pathways Young Adult Program is no different. 

The power and influence that made William Ward a great teacher decades ago, has now continued later in his life. The more than 500 children he foster parented over the years, and the majority of the students he taught, all came from difficult home lives. The longtime educator was especially touched by the youth who had spent years in foster care, and who after turning 18, had aged out of the system–suddenly adrift in a world without guidance from the state or parents. 

The state pays the living expenses for children in foster care until they reach age 18, or 21 if they’re still in school. Once they age out of the system, they are on their own. Turning 18 is a big deal as teens begin to navigate the transition to adulthood. This transition is even more challenging for young adults in foster care who face “unfair life circumstances” and often don’t have a safety net, Ward explained. 

“There are too many youth that have gone through trauma all of their life and to turn 18, they’re assuming that they’ll be free and on the path to adulthood,” he said. “They’re considered adults at 18 by the state, but their journey is just beginning.”

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: Inside one of the Pathways Young Adult Program’s housing units for females.

According to the Department of Children’s Services, oftentimes when a young adult leaves the foster care system, they are at increased risk for homelessness, unemployment, low educational levels and unintended pregnancies– just to name a few.

Ward realized that a positive approach to prevention and intervention was necessary to help those exiting the foster care system. 

In 2007, he created Pathways Young Adult Program–a community based nonprofit agency that provides free housing, career development, health and wellness education along with finance and money management skills to at-risk youth ages 18 through 25, who otherwise would have nowhere to turn for help. 

“I started out with the idea of providing housing for these youth because they kept coming to me saying that they’re homeless and going from house to house,” Ward recalled. “So I developed this program to provide housing for them. I am the first Black business in the state of Tennessee that did that, or does that, provide housing and social services for aged out youth. The only one.”

With a motto of, “Success through Committed Support,” Pathways Young Adult Program has 12 beds distributed among five housing units located in Chattanooga. It currently houses three males and two females who have aged out of foster care. Housing costs are absorbed by vouchers provided by the state of Tennessee. 
Participants must be enrolled in school or working towards a GED (General Educational Development) diploma.

“We want them all to go to school,” said J. Rodney Williams, Pathways director/mentor. “Education is a prime path towards getting a grip on what life really has in store and achieving great things.”

Williams, a former Marine, was one of the students Ward taught at Howard Elementary School. Additionally, the two men were paired in the Big Brothers program, which matches youth with volunteer mentors. 

“He (Ward) stepped in, and right away we became close,” said Williams. “And here we are 50 years later.”

To learn more about Pathways Young Adult Program or how you can help, call 423-902-7740, or visit