Helping Teens Transition from Foster Care to Adulthood
Guide and Provide
(page 2 of 4)
“In my experience, nine out of 10 times, that’s the deciding factor” in kids choosing the right path — “knowing that (someone) cares no matter how bad it gets,” said McKibbin, who has been mentoring a former foster-care youth for six years.
Ashley Moniece Jackson, center, stands with roommates at the Tree House Scholarship Home, which provides a stable environment for former foster children pursuing college degrees.
Deborah Moore said she “sometimes feels like a mom, sometimes a friend” to Brian Williams, 23, a former foster-care youth who asked her to be his mentor.
“I think the most important thing I’ve tried to do is to stay consistent in his life and offer him opportunities to help him grow,” said Moore, director of the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian Ad Litem Program. “When we are aging out of childhood, we have our families to guide us, and our foster youth don’t have families to guide and provide for them.”
For dozens of youths who have gone through the foster-care system, that guide is Emily Rattini-Reich. She runs TCC’s Fostering Achievement Fellowship Program, and along with helping kids “survive and thrive,” she listens to their struggles — once they come to trust her.
“Most of these kids have been in and out of the system for so long, you can understand why they would be hesitant to open up,” said Rattini-Reich. “It may be that no one’s ever asked them what they want or what their dreams are.”
Sometimes that concerned person is a peer. Program participants who make the transition from TCC to Florida State University and Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University often come back as role models.
“These young students need to hear that they can succeed, that they’re so much more than what they’ve been through in foster care,” said Rattini-Reich. The program’s message: “Don’t let that experience define you. You don’t have to be a statistic.”
Despite their unique backgrounds, most of the roughly 30 students in the program share the need for a support structure and a hand navigating the gaps in their lives.
The fellowship program helps students become self-sufficient and cope with a range of issues, including academics, financial aid, learning to budget and handle money, finding affordable housing, providing emotional support, even their love lives.
“We deal with everything,” said Rattini-Reich. “We want to help students overcome the hurdles in their lives.”
Those hurdles can be monumental.
“Research suggests only 2 percent of former foster youth graduate with a bachelor’s degree compared to approximately 25 percent of their non-foster care peers,” said Lisa Jackson, coordinator of the Unconquered Scholars Program at Florida State University.
The program helps students like Kevin Borjas fight those statistics.
“I was intimidated by the program at first,” said Borjas, 20, who has lived in more than 10 homes since he was a tot. “These people understand your story and what you’ve been through. They’ve been through similar things. And you build a bond. All these kids, they’re my friends.”
The need for a bond extends to academics as well.
“A lot of kids are coming to college with very strong academic records,” noted Jovanny Felix, director of TRIO/Student Support Services at FAMU. “They just need a little direction.”
The need for direction often comes down to basics, like where to live.
Some kids aren’t able to stay at a foster home or group home and aren’t quite ready to live in an apartment by themselves.
There’s a need for “quality housing,” a place where young people “have the freedom to come and go, but have an adult close by,” McKibbin said. “These kids are used to foster parents or house parents.”
One example of quality housing is Tallahassee’s new Tree House Scholarship Home.
Tree House, in partnership with Children’s Home Society of Florida, provides emergency shelter services to children, ages 2-12, but the group recently transformed a vacant shelter home into a residence for up to five young women. It’s designed for students ages 18 to 23, who have aged out of the system and are attending a post secondary education program in Tallahassee. A resident adviser also lives in the back of the furnished home in her own room and they all share a kitchen and common living space.