KANSAS CITY — The recent news about the girl in the closet was particularly meaningful for Nathan Ross, who has known many young people from broken or abusive homes.
He was one of them.
Ross survived a notorious case that shocked the public just like that of a girl recently rescued from the closet in a Kansas City home. Two of Ross' younger brothers died from their mother's abuse.
But the boy with the emotional scars is now a man of 23 with a mission to help other fragile youths. Ross, formerly Ronald Bass, is building a mentoring program to match compassionate adults with young people separated from their biological parents and to help them navigate their way to normal lives.
"I want every child that has to come to the foster care system to get all the resources I had, to have every chance for success that I had," Ross said. "It shouldn't take murders of your siblings or parents locking you in the closet. It shouldn't take something so horrific before people step up and say you deserve to have a fair chance at life."
Children reaching out for a mentor in Ross' program reveal some things about themselves by filling out a survey:
Q: What person do you most admire and why?
A: My Grandma because she has always been there for me and she does not do drugs.
Q: What are your favorite subjects to read about?
A: Mysteries, scary books, no sad books.
Q: What are your favorite subjects in school?
A: Math, social studies, government.
Q: What is one goal you have set for the future?
A: To be successful, to go to college.
Ronald Bass was embraced into the world of foster care, therapy, mentors and adoption after his mother was arrested in 1999. Mary Bass, who starved and otherwise abused her five children, burned two of the boys in scalding bath water in their Kansas City home and then did nothing as they died of infection.
It was a case that appalled Kansas City in much the same way as that of the 10-year-old girl, whose mother faces criminal charges for allegedly starving her and locking her away in a utility closet.
Ronald Bass and his surviving siblings received a lot of attention because their case was so publicized.
"Everyone kept rooting for me and telling me I could do well," said Nathan Ross, the name he took to replace his birth one. "When I was having my struggles, my mentor really encouraged me to keep on pursuing my education.
"I had all the resources I needed," Ross continued, "whereas a lot of these kids, because they're not seen as important enough in their stories, don't get the same resources."
After graduating from Blue Springs High School, Ross enrolled at Northwest Missouri State University intending to pursue a career in theater. But he became interested in public speaking and in motivating others. He left school because he wanted to help other kids going through foster care.
His adoptive mother, Lori Ross, is president of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association. Nathan Ross became director of youth services for that organization and recently began the mentoring program called Compassionate Adult Role-models Encouraging Success (CARES). He is now pursuing a degree in social psychology from Park University.
Ross recruits adults who will serve as role models for youths without the structure of a caseworker or the foster parental role of a disciplinarian. One of the first things kids in the foster system say is they are tired of adults who always seem to have an agenda.
Instead, mentors go to the movies with them or the park, or just hang out and talk.
"Real-life conversations start to happen that way," Ross said. "Having an adult figure show them this is what life can be like really motivates them."
Studies show that these kids, with mentors, are less likely to drop out of school or to fall into drugs or alcohol.
Ross has already matched about 20 volunteer mentors with youths living either in a foster care situation or in a group home. One volunteer is Lauren Williams, 33, a married Lee's Summit woman with no children who became interested in foster kids when her workplace organized a luggage drive for them.
"Foster children move a lot," she explained, "and they move their belongings, usually, in garbage bags."
Williams and a half dozen other volunteer mentors went through a Saturday training session with Ross, learning what would be expected of them. The primary requisite is a commitment to stay with their mentee for at least a year. Many foster kids have been rejected so often they're afraid to build relationships.
Williams was matched with a 17-year-old girl living in a group home with her 1-year-old daughter. The teen's biological mother is legally barred from contact with her. The girl is also separated from her younger sibling.
It's a tough road. But this girl looks ahead to her senior year in high school and aspires to be a lawyer. Williams plans to accompany her on campus visits to the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Lincoln University in Jefferson City.
Williams and her mentee have been getting to know each other for about three months, meeting together about three times a month, including a visit to the Country Club Plaza.
"My heart goes out to her," Williams said. "I've gotten so much support in my life, I feel like it's time for me to give back. Being a mentor is a small thing compared to the need."
Ross describes himself as a person of faith who believes that everything is for a purpose. People ask how he can believe that after his childhood experience.
"I get that a lot," Ross said. "Yes, my brothers did die. But because of their story, I got to the foster home that I went to that was able to give me nurturing, to show me how a family worked. That nurturing allowed me to go into the Ross family. It led me to being able to trust someone enough to get married and to me getting this job and being able to work in this field and wanting to go out and make a change for the world."
Ross said he hopes the girl saved from the closet gets all the love and nurturing she deserves. He also hopes her case will inspire people to help other children who are in need but not in the headlines.
"We need to use this story to not only help her but to make change for everyone else," he said.