For those who have aged out of the foster care system, Valencia offers more than specialized guidance—it offers a path to stability.
//BY SUSAN FRITH
Valencia student Jeremiah Jones was discouraged when he arrived at Charmaine Lowe’s office on West Campus last spring. The 23-year-old former foster youth had no job, and he was about to lose his housing.
But Lowe, who’d just been hired as Valencia’s new success coach, offered Jones more than words of encouragement. She connected the student with an employment specialist, who helped him find work. She helped him get rent assistance, money for textbooks, and even pots and pans for his kitchen. “She reached out to me on a day-to-day, and a week-to-week basis,” Jones says. “She gave me an outline for the classes I’d need to excel in and reach my graduation date.” Now he has a good job with Ralph Lauren and hopes to eventually earn a computer engineering degree from Florida State University.
Lowe’s position was created in January through a partnership with Community Based Care of Central Florida, the lead agency for Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. It builds on Valencia’s efforts to make college dreams a reality for those who have aged out of the foster care system and may lack the traditional support networks that many of their classmates take for granted. Around the country, it is estimated that only 3 percent of former foster youth make it through college.
At least 160 students are taking on that challenge at Valencia this semester. “I have a lot of students who are just trying to survive one day at a time,” says Lowe. Working with case managers, she offers academic advising to keep students on track with their majors, connections to campus and community resources, and a friendly ear.
“We offer some type of stability,” says Kenya Richardson, financial aid coordinator for West Campus and one of the first at Valencia to reach out to foster students. “We’ve kind of created a one-stop shop for these students so we can personally assist them and make sure they’re successful through their college experience.”
Richardson started working with foster students at Valencia about 10 years ago “by fluke.” It was the peak of registration. She was taking calls at the Answer Center one day when a representative from DCF phoned about a student who was having trouble with enrollment. (The department handles cases of foster care, ward of court, legal guardianship, and adoption.) A week after Richardson helped that student, the representative called back. “She asked me to be the point person for all of their students to help guide them and ease the burden of some of the administrative barriers and numerous steps of enrollment.”
“I agreed, but I did not know or realize what I agreed to,” she jokes. By 2011, with more than 200 students identified as coming from the foster care system or as homeless (another group Richardson was assisting), it was clear she needed some back-up. The college hired financial aid liaisons to share the workload and give students a contact at each campus. One key task is helping students obtain Florida tuition waivers, which are available to current and former foster students until they reach age 28. (Once students secure these waivers, they can take any Pell Grant money they receive and apply it to living expenses.) Foster students also get priority registration to make it easier for them to find classes that fit their personal schedules and meet the requirement of being enrolled full-time.
Valencia financial-aid specialist Terrie Meyers has worked with foster students on the East and Winter Park campuses. At times her role has extended outside of school. She has provided temporary shelter in her own home, shopped for a baby shower and taken a student to buy her first car.
“She’d finally saved enough money,” Meyers says. “So we planned on a Saturday—I picked her up, and we went car shopping.” Meyers and a friend helped the student get the best car for the money she had. “It was very rewarding,” she says. “We were concerned about her catching the bus early in morning when it was dark. This gave her more leeway to come and go, and stay late on campus if needed. It was a proud moment for her.”
A few weeks before the fall term begins, Charmaine Lowe’s office is crowded with binders and notebooks, highlighters and index cards, all collected during a school supply drive for Valencia’s foster students. She plans to visit each campus to distribute student success kits. Lowe, a Valencia graduate who has volunteered with pregnant teens and abused children, brings to her job a passion for helping under-served groups. “I love seeing people succeed and do really great things.”
As a success coach, she works closely with case managers to help students line up the resources they need. “She was the only one I could talk to at a time when I didn’t have the proper resources,” says Valencia student Brandon Pinkney. “She’s been pushing me to work harder.” Finding stable housing has been a challenge, but Pinkney calls college his “number one priority,” adding, “I don’t give up for anything.” He hopes to earn his associate degree in a veterinary field.
“My kids have really expressed gratitude for Charmaine,” says Central Florida youth advocate Rebecca Moses. Moses serves as youth advisory board chair for Community Based Care of Central Florida. She also works at The Faine House, which provides shelter, mentoring, tutoring, and life-skills training for those ages 18 to 23 who are making the transition out of foster care. “Charmaine creates a very warm, safe space for everybody.
She’s very down-to-earth and straight to the point. I think she’s a role model, especially for a lot of our young women.”
Beyond financial hardships, Moses says the young adults whom she works with have “been bounced around between different homes and schools, so they may lack credits or education in certain areas.” They may need some extra guidance as they work toward independence, and many deal with emotional scars.
“We have stories of abuse from parents or from siblings, sexual abuse, kids whose parents have killed their siblings or other parents, parents who simply died,” she says.
FACTS ABOUT FOSTER YOUTH
Lowe understands that because of their history, many foster students “don’t trust people so easily,” so she works hard to earn that trust. “When someone comes in my office, I’m very, very open. I explain to them who I am and what I do and why I’m here for them.” She treats them like traditional college students, tailoring the kind of help she gives to each individual’s needs. That occasionally takes a bit of detective work.
One student was receiving support services, including psychological counseling, but was floundering academically. “I asked her, ‘Is there anything making you unsuccessful here at Valencia?’” The student admitted she was too shy to ask questions in class. “When I come to college, I feel like I should already know the answers,” she told Lowe, “and I don’t want to look stupid.”
Lowe urged her to speak up. “I said, ‘Look, trust me, if you raise your hand and ask that question, there are going to be at least 10 other students who have that same question.’” At the end of the semester the student returned to her office, excited to tell Lowe that she’d passed all of her classes.
Another student’s challenges were more external. “She was living in a hotel room with four kids and trying to maintain a part-time job as well as come to Valencia and attend classes.” Lowe was able to find her free day care. “That kind of lightened the load for her.”
With the added resources for those exiting the foster care system (and the prospect of success coaches being added at additional colleges throughout Florida), Lowe is hopeful that the college success rate will change.
She’s impressed with the resilience shown by many of her students. “They become very strong [and] very determined,” she says. “Once they have that, they are on the road to success.”
That’s what happened to Valencia alumna Amanda Russo (’09). Russo had been in and out of foster care since she was 8 years old. By the time she came to college, she was living with her grandmother, but she had aged out of the foster care system. She qualified for a Pell Grant and a tuition waiver, but struggled to afford transportation and textbooks. And like many foster students, she had a hard time making the transition from high school to college. Students who’ve come through the foster system “don’t have the same support to build those study skills,” Russo says. “It’s your individual responsibility to push yourself.”
She enrolled in too many courses, made poor grades and went on academic probation. As a result she lost her Pell Grant.
But Russo managed to pull herself together and improve her grades. “It was almost out of spite,” she says. One of her foster parents had told her in ninth grade that she wouldn’t ever amount to anything. Russo couldn’t stand the thought that she might be proving the woman right.
She met with Kenya Richardson, who helped her go through the appeals process to get back her Pell Grant. “That took a huge burden off, and I was able to focus on academics.” A counselor helped her map out a plan to graduate “relatively on time.” In 2011 she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida in English Language Arts Education.
Now a high school teacher, Russo shows students her transcripts because she wants them to know how she stumbled but got back up. “To have my degree means stability,” she says. “A lot of foster youth live their entire lives in transition. They don’t know if they’re going to be gone next week. They can walk in, and their foster parent can say, ‘You’re leaving on Monday.’”
“To be in a stable situation, to have a stable job that I love that is my calling, and to be able to provide for my family is huge,” she adds. “To have that support to go to college and make my life better than my parents’ lives, knowing my own daughter is never going to have to be in that situation, that’s so important to me.”
Russo is thrilled that Valencia created the success coach position to help other former foster youths like her. “It’s a great school, and the fact that they’re building on that support, I’m ecstatic about.”
How You Can Help
Below are some ways in which you can support current and former foster youth and help make a difference in a young person’s life.
Video by: Children’s Home Society of Florida
Video by: Orlando Sentinel