DHS News August 2012
Helping Foster Youth Transition to Success
The transition to adulthood can be a difficult one; however, the challenges can seem insurmountable to youth leaving the foster care system and moving on to post-secondary education. As a way to provide a consistent support system during a foster youth’s transition to independence, the DHS Executive Office offers a variety of services through its Independent Living (IL) Program.
IL supports begin for in-care youth at age 16. These youth work with the IL staff to complete life skills assessments, make post-secondary plans, and focus on job and career development. After leaving care, youth up to age 21 are eligible to receive a wide range of after care services, such as living stipends; housing; trainings on career development, job skills, budgeting and finances; and access to community resources.
The IL program began as a small effort in 2006, with two staff members reaching 35 youth. Currently, the program has expanded to 15 full-time staff members providing supports to 175 students.
“Nationally, statistics about former foster youth in higher education are grim: around 3 percent complete a two-year degree, and even fewer receive a four-year degree,” said JoAnn Hannah, transition program manager. “Here in Allegheny County, we are seeing around 13 percent of former foster youth completing post-secondary education or training programs. The educational, financial and emotional supports of the Independent Living Programs seem to play a role in the success of these students.”
This year marked the largest IL “class” to date with 15 former foster youth graduating from advanced programs. What follows are stories from Bartholomew, Erika and Amanda, just three of the recently graduated youth.
Bartholomew graduated in May with a degree in social work from Edinboro University. He credits the IL program for easing his transition to a university more than 100 miles away from his hometown.
“Finding housing – and the means of transportation to get to the housing - during breaks was my biggest challenge in college,” Bartholomew began. “[The IL program] placed me with me with a couple closer to my school. During Christmas breaks and summer breaks, I’d spend my time out there with them. The family I stayed with, they were the best people ever. They were super nice and welcoming and helped me with anything I needed help with. I would call them during the school year, and they would send me things. I still talk to them to see how things are going.”
Prior to receiving services through the Independent Living Program, Erika – who recently graduated with a bachelor's degree in public health – was more than a bit hesitant about participating.
“I had a fear that the Independent Living Program was going backwards; I was going back into the life I had before,” she said. “After I started the program, I realized it wasn’t a step back. I was still able to do things for myself like get an internship and look for a job. It was forward movement, and I was just getting support. It’s all a mindset thing.”
Erika continued, “[The IL staff members] are willing to help me with anything and listen to the problems I am having. I had a situation where I needed one more class to finish my degree. I told [my caseworker] about it, and [the caseworker] helped me to apply for grants online to pay for the class. They helped me get bus passes for my internship. They are trying to help me find a place so I can get full custody of my sister in August. It’s good to have someone who believes in you and will help you achieve what you want to achieve.”
Amanda was involved in the IL program through A Second Chance. She feels her college experience was greatly enhanced by the additional support she received through DHS.
“The Independent Living Program reimburses you for your books, which was really helpful. As long as you are living in a dorm you get a stipend, which gave me a chance to be ‘normal’,” she said. “I went to school with a bunch of kids who probably wouldn’t know what foster kids were. [Because of the stipends], my freshman year I didn’t have to struggle and work, and I was able to develop friendships. I was able to join a sorority and cheer for the first three years of college.”
Amanda graduated 81 out of 320 in her class at Washington and Jefferson University. She will begin a master’s program in social work this fall, and is proud of all that she has accomplished.
“People don’t know that I was in foster care. Just because you were in care you don’t have to let it define you the way that people think it defines you. You can always be better than your parents and break the cycle.”
These truly remarkable young adults have each chosen a path that will allow them to give back: Amanda hopes to become a licensed social worker, Bartholomew is working with foster youth at a residential facility, and Erika is finishing her internship with the Health Department and searching for a job in public health. Both Bartholomew and Erika have volunteered to be mentors with the DHS Embark! Mentoring program.
Learn more about the Independent Living Program.
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