After graduating from college with a degree in criminal justice, Massachusetts native Mike Gasper was working at a psychiatric hospital when he realized he wanted to help children before they reached that point.
“I saw a lot of sadness, and a lot of hope, for the children being institutionalized,” Gasper says. “I had a mentor who told me [to] leave the region and see what other places have. I was trying to leave my comfort zone.”
That’s what brought him to Richmond. Gasper started attending Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work in 2001, and has been rooted here since. After putting in time at the state’s Department of Social Services, he struck out on his own at age 27 to form Extra Special Parents.
The idea is to give high-risk children who might otherwise land in group homes opportunities to live with families, he says. The agency has grown to serve between 50 and 70 children each day, with offices in Richmond, Roanoke and Rockingham County. The company also just opened an office in Indiana after securing a contract with the state’s government.
Gasper, who also works as a field instructor with VCU and teaches sociology at Richard Bland College, says the agency is looking toward filling another service gap — children aging out of foster care. “Our agency commits that once you’re here,” he says, “we’ll always be here for you.”