Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2009

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'No One Makes It on Their Own'

Programs provide extra support for former foster youth in college

By Simone Pringle



For most people, the holidays are all about family. Going to Grandma's house, baking cookies with cousins and aunts, watching Dad slice the turkey at the head of the table. But for all the joy the season brings to many people because of the extra family time, it can be a particularly hard time for those who don't have families to go home to, like alumni of the foster care system.

"[Former foster youth] are among the strongest people you're ever going to meet. But we don't always know how far to open up. Some people cling so quickly to anyone who helps, whereas some people close themselves so to not accept help at all. The holidays can be a very lonely time for them, especially because of the lack of familial support," Misty Stensile, executive director of the Foster Care Alumni of America (FCAA), says.

Feelings of loneliness can be acute for foster care alumni in college during the holidays, when dorms close and students head home for vacation. But former foster youth have it tough year-round. Alicia Hoban, who has been in a kinship care arrangement for seven years, agrees. "It is hard to go out on your own and watch the other students and roommates call their parents and get cards and care packages when I knew that I wouldn't be having those conversations or receiving those gifts," Hoban says.

Just one of the 125,000 children who live in kinship care arrangements in a given year, Hoban is now an 18-year-old sophomore at Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo. She and her siblings lived with her aunt and uncle before she transitioned into an independent living program. Hoban's aunt and uncle encouraged her to go to college but found paying for her education difficult.

Paying for and attending college are tough issues for many of the approximately 25,000 children who exit foster care annually in the United States. The transition into adulthood, and college for the few who go, is often faced alone and therefore is filled with extra anxiety, stress, and confusion. Three limited-range 2003 studies indicate that 70% of the foster care youth emancipated annually have a desire to go to college. But a Casey Family Programs study that same year reported that only 37% of emancipated foster youth actually go on to attend college.

Many child welfare organizations, colleges, and universities are making strides to improve the systematic issues that come with leaving the system and transitioning into adulthood. Hoban found help through WMU's Seita Scholars program. Named after Western Michigan alum Dr. John Seita, a social work expert and alumni of the foster care system, the program provides financial as well as emotional support for foster youth at the university.

WMU's Financial Aid Director Mark Delorey was one of the faculty members who helped create the program. Delorey sat down with Penny Bundy, the university's admissions director, and Yvonne Unrau, the current director of the Seita Scholars program, to develop a comprehensive program that would meet the needs of WMU's foster alumni population.

"We had the idea of a scholarship, but we knew money isn't enough, that there needs to be a support system," Delorey says. "We contacted foster care alumni already on campus and formed a group. We started talking to the different organization and offices on campus that would have to help provide support: residence halls, dining services, etc. Everybody that we spoke to had one question: 'What can I do to help?'"

The program, which currently consists of 50 students, just began its second year. Delorey says campus coaches are an essential part of the Seita Scholars program. These coaches all have degrees in social work, and they address concerns and help students fulfill needs. "Everything from rides to the dentist to picking people up from the train, bus stations. We try to provide any services that will meet their needs academically and emotionally," Delorey says.

"Many programs focus too much on just one aspect such as the financial, and not enough on everything the college transition encompasses. You have to worry about emotional needs of foster care alumni, that they feel safe and secure. You have to focus on more than academics. Foster care alumni need support systems; they are crucial to one's success," Seita says, explaining the reasoning behind the program named for him. "Also making sure that young people have academic success, sometimes it might require a variety of different approaches including formal and informal mentoring. A program should encompass everything, making sure basic needs for shelter, food are met."

Hoban says the Seita Scholars program helped her overcome the challenges she faced in college. Many times, Hoban found just being on her own difficult. "It was hard trying to make it to all of your classes and maintain a social life at the same time," Hoban says. Services such as private Seita Scholar study rooms in the library and one-on-one mentoring helped her succeed and move on to her sophomore year. "[Campus coaches] checked in with us biweekly to see how we were doing and helped us get our stuff done like doctor's appointments and court dates and whatever we needed help with," Hoban explains.

The program is a response to the Foster Care Higher Education Summit held two years ago. Many Michigan colleges and universities participated in the summit, which focused on encouraging more of the state's foster care population to go to college. The Michigan Campus Compact and the state Department of Human Services hosted the event. John Seita hopes to expand similar programs to universities nationwide, starting with Michigan State University, where he is currently an associate professor in the school of social work.

Wrap Me Up in Love: The Red Scarf Project



The Red Scarf Project evolved from the idea that even strangers can provide support for former foster youth in college. Tina Raheem, the scholarship director for the Orphan Foundation of America, a CWLA member, says that the scarves are "something that really shows caring, and is handmade, by someone who doesn't know the young person. It serves as a virtual hug."

Going into its fifth year, the project received 15,000 scarves last year to give out to its members in Valentine's Day care packages. Raheem says anybody can knit a scarf and send it in. The foundation has gotten scarves from 80-year-old arthritis patients, knitting circles, beginning knitting Girl Scout groups, sororities, mothers' groups, and corporate offices.

While Raheem says the project is not directly advertised, it is promoted on the foundation's website, www.orphan.org, and through the support of several blogs including Now Norma Knits. The National Needle Arts Association endorses the project.

Volunteers are more than welcome to send in scarves. Raheem says that the receiving period for this year is September 1 to December 15. The recommended size for scarves is roughly 60 inches long and five to eight inches wide, or generally long enough to wrap around the neck and drape down. While most scarves are red, Raheem says that the foundation gladly accepts gender-neutral colors such as black, dark greens, and blues. Because the foundation handles the cost of shipping, there is a limit of five scarves per person or organization.

Scarves may be sent to:
Orphan Foundation of America
The Red Scarf Project
21351 Gentry Drive, Sterling, VA 20166


"What people forget to ask is, 'What are the needs of people who left foster care?'" says Seita. "Youth in foster care don't have the same easy pathway. The challenge is constructing a system to get them involved." He believes his 1974 emancipation from the child welfare system was much harder than it would be today. "Back then, there was a sense you had to do it on your own. Now we realize no one makes it on their own. We have more legislation, more help for young people," Seita says. "The basic human needs to be safe, to belong, haven't changed, but awareness to those needs have increased. Today, the child welfare system is more aware of the needs and we need diligence about delivering those needs."

Over the past decade, legislation such as 2003's John H. Chafee Educational and Training Vouchers Program (ETV) for Youths Aging out of Foster Care has made the transition into adulthood and for those who choose to go to college easier and more affordable. The ETV program provides vouchers of up to $5,000 per year accessible to former foster youth to support the costs of going to college. According to a report by the National Foster Care Coalition and Casey Family Programs, 1,881 California students participated in the Chafee ETV program during the 2005-2006 academic year, each receiving an average amount of $4,318.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, passed last October, requires there be "a case review system to include a procedure for assuring that a case worker aids and supports a child aging out of foster care in developing a personalized transition plan." The act was created in response to studies that found emancipated foster youth felt very unprepared for college and adulthood.

Many states have used the new law to implement various programs. Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Washington state have enacted new laws that require case workers to help youth age 16 and older to begin developing transition plans that must include health care, mentoring assistance, postsecondary education, and housing. Several states, like Alaska, have gone as far as proposing bills that would waive undergraduate tuition at the state's public universities for former foster youth. Massachusetts has pledged to continue supporting youth between the ages of 18 and 22 so long as the youth is enrolled in a postsecondary education or vocational program, or employed at least part-time.

Despite the strides the child welfare field is making to improve the transition from foster care to adulthood, Seita says there is one major change that would improve the lives of everyone involved. "I've done studies, and one of the things I've noticed is that foster care isn't one of those fields where you see a lot of people who were once in the system in positions of leadership. I hope my dream of placing young people in leadership roles in the foster care system will manifest and improve things even further," he says.

Although Delorey says the Seita Scholars program is something completely unique in the state's network of public universities, many universities nationwide provide scholarships and grants for former foster youth. Outside of Michigan, similar programs thrive in providing foster care alumni with the tools they need to succeed. One of the most well-known and extensive programs is the Guardian Scholars program. In 1998, a partnership between California State University-Fullerton and the Orangewood Children's Foundation created the program beginning with three students. Today, the program's components include thorough help with applying for and receiving financial aid, year-round housing, and an intense mentoring network. The Guardian Scholars program has spread beyond CSU-Fullerton and is available at several California colleges and universities including the University of California-Irvine, San Diego State University, Santa Ana College, Hope International University, and Orange Coast College.

Guardian Scholar Patrick Burns, a 22-year-old Oakland, California, native, graduated with honors and received his bachelor's degree in drama from the University of California- Irvine in June. Burns, who had been placed in five foster homes during his high school career, "wanted badly to go college." Although he struggled academically, he managed to earn good grades. His involvement in extracurricular activities, as well as his academic performance, granted him admission to several California state schools, including a full scholarship to the University of California-Berkeley, to study pre-law.

Fostering Educational Success

Earlier this year, the Guardian Scholars program at founding institution California State University-Fullerton earned CWLA's inaugural Fostering Educational Success award. Representatives from the program attended CWLA's national conference last February. Program director Grace Johnson, coordinator Guilii Kraemer, founder Ron Davis and his wife Lucy, and Guardian Scholars Christopher Andrade and Tarae Graves came to Washington, DC, to accept the award. Andrade and Graves inspired the crowd with speeches about what the program had meant to them, paving the way for a future in which they will advocate for other foster youth. "I was blessed with this opportunity to get my education," Graves, who graduated this year, said. Andrade, who just began his junior year, echoed her sentiment: "Thank goodness I found this program."


Burns knew that he needed a plan to be successful after emancipation, so he did some research to find the necessary help. "Alameda County has a great Independent Living Skills Program [ILSP], which offered book money twice a year and moral support, but many of the perks were difficult to take advantage of since I was living far away [at UC-Irvine]. In the last couple years the program has branched into two programs: Alameda County ILSP and Beyond Emancipation," Burns says. "Both programs are valuable assets to foster youth and former foster youth alike providing life skill classes, scholarships, and much more. I would have never been able to figure out how to apply for financial aid, [secure] an apartment, or countless other things if it hadn't been for them."

Colleges and universities have made such progress that several schools across the country are now looking to add a Guardian Scholars program to their campuses. Two Indiana institutions (Ball State University and Ivy Tech Community College) and two Colorado campuses (Mesa State College and the University of Colorado at Boulder), as well as Hunter College in New York are now Guardian Scholar participants. In addition to individual supports at each campus, every Guardian Scholars participating school provides former foster youth with year-round housing, giving them a place to live during the holidays.

Many public and private organizations are finding ways to make the holidays a happier time for former foster youth in college. Stensile says while foster care alumni in college need support all year, they should get extra attention around the holidays. In November 2007, as a part of the "Kids Are Waiting" campaign, the Alexandria, Virginia-based FCAA held a Thanksgiving dinner on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Stensile says that the event was a call for change to the child welfare system.

"We see the personal needs of foster care alumni during the holidays. We wanted to find a way to bring that message to more people. For those of us who never had permanent families, Congress is the closest we'd ever get to having parents," Stensile says. "This was our way of saying, 'We came home for the holidays, but no one was here. Please pay more attention to those without families every day, not just during the holidays.'"

Seita personally encourages students to be active during the holidays and take advantage of going home with friends' families. He remembers how he felt as a young adult. "I felt like an interloper, and I [think] these kids have the same type of feeling. You think it's charity, even when people are being genuine. It's easy to be sad by yourself during that time of the year. Don't sit around in the dorm and mope during the holidays. If you have a group of young people staying in the dorm with you, get out and do something," he says.

To keep his spirits lifted, Burns changed his plans from one holiday to the next while he was in college. "Luckily I was blessed beyond belief with incredible friends and teachers. I spent many holidays and special occasions either at my friends' families' homes or at the dinner table of a professor. This wonderful emotional support was vital to my survival and success," Burns says.

Eileen McCaffrey, the executive director of the Orphan Foundation of America (OFA), a CWLA member, says that while a growing number of former foster youth in college aren't relying on campus housing, even students with their own apartments should plan for the holidays. "We talk to them early in the semester about the holidays," she says. "Not only about where will they be, but how will they handle it emotionally? Will they invite friends over? Will they go to church? Will they volunteer? For many former foster youth, it's not where they will be, but how they will pass that time."

Former CWLA Intern Named One of Glamour's 2009 Top 10 College Women

Lily Dorman-Colby was featured in Glamour magazine's October issue for her advocacy work on behalf of children in foster care. Dorman-Colby was an intern with CWLA's policy and public affairs department last summer, and she will be continuing her work with CWLA as a fellow. In her role as CWLA's foster youth outreach coordinator, she will create a network of foster care alumni dedicated to foster care reform.

Dorman-Colby is a glowing example of how former foster youth can take advantage of educational opportunities despite their tumultuous childhoods. She entered the foster care system at age 12, due to her parents' drug abuse and mental illness, and bounced between several foster homes. She focused her energy on school, graduating high school as an honors student and a nationally ranked wrestler. She now attends Yale University, where she is majoring in economics.

Dorman-Colby's goal is to reform foster care policy so more foster youth attend college. She has already made great strides in this effort. As an intern with California State Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, she inspired Hancock to author a bill that streamlined the foster parent approval process without compromising safety. This bill became California law in 2007. Dorman-Colby has also written a handbook for foster youth about how to apply for college, and she served as an AmeriCorps volunteer helping first-generation college-bound youth apply for college. To get involved with Dorman-Colby's efforts as a foster care alum, contact voice@cwla.org.


OFA has several programs that help former foster youth make the transition into college financially and emotionally. Two of the more popular initiatives among OFA members include the Care Package program and the Red Scarf project. The Care Package program started 14 years ago when McCaffrey realized that many former foster youth couldn't rely on parents to supply money and needed goods on a regular basis. Three times a year, in September, on Valentine's Day, and in April, McCaffrey says, OFA staff sends out thousands of care packages from its Sterling, Virginia, headquarters.

McCaffrey says these two initiatives are a smaller part of a widespread effort. "It [takes] more than just money. It's the other relationships, it's mentoring, coaching, care packages, etc., that help. We need to start building on our youths' strengths," she says. "Their time in foster care is not their sole defining attribute. They have all these strengths that need to be recognized and built on."

Agreeing with McCaffrey, Burns says that former foster youth who enroll in college should congratulate themselves for making it that far. "You have to acknowledge the things you've overcome and own that strength in order to build off of that for the next challenge," Burns says. "Also, take help when someone offers it to you. There is a difference between accepting help and expecting help."

Only 3% of the emancipated foster youth who go to college leave with a degree. Programs like the Guardian and Seita Scholars aim to raise that number. As initiatives like these grow, more former foster youth might find the academic, emotional, and financial support they need to complete their degrees and succeed. "Most importantly, don't give up," Burns says. "The number of foster youth that aren't able to finish college is astronomical and heartbreaking, but that doesn't mean you have to be included in that figure."

Simone Pringle was an editorial intern at CWLA last summer. She is a journalism student at Howard University in Washington, DC.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.


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