Once a young person turns 18 and leaves the foster care system, they should be ready to do what other young adults do–go to college or get a job, right? The Chafee Foster Care Independence Program assists youth by providing assistance in achieving self-sufficiency after leaving foster care. Through supports such as the Educational and Training Vouchers Program (ETV), former foster youth can receive financial assistance with college expenses.
Research has shown that the foster care population generally has poor outcomes as they transition to adulthood. The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth found that former foster youth experienced significant challenges including high rates of homelessness, incarceration, and unemployment. As recently as a decade ago, college was not an option for most young adults leaving the foster care program. Fortunately, there are now supports and assistance available so that more former foster youth are able to attend college, providing them the education they need to be competitive in today’s workforce.
No doubt, many former foster youth now have something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. They have opportunities that few of their predecessors had just 10 to 15 years ago. The reality is, new challenges have emerged.
Many former foster youth must live in dormitories and other college-sponsored housing. Often they do not have the resources required for off-campus housing such as a security deposit to rent an apartment, furniture, and other household items. Most of us had parents or guardians that could help with these items. Former foster youth rarely have this luxury. Living in dormitories may provide an excellent transition for vulnerable young adults. However, there is often a ‘catch’ to this….most colleges and universities close down their housing (and food service) during extended breaks such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. This leaves former foster youth with the challenge of finding housing and meals during the holidays. Options such as spending the holidays with family may not be possible for young adults who were separated from their families as children due to abuse or neglect. Generally, options such as staying at a hotel and dining out are beyond the financial means of former foster youth. If they are lucky, a young person may have friends with whom they can spend holidays. However, this may not always be possible, especially if the young person has a part-time job.
In case you were thinking there is little you can do to address this problem, the following are some suggestions for getting involved.
1) Offer to host a former foster youth in your community for the holidays. Maybe your son or daughter has a former classmate who was in foster care. Or maybe you know of a young person through your community/social circles. Just because they haven’t asked for help, doesn’t mean they couldn’t use some help.
2) Suggest that members of your church or other civic organization work together to develop a network of supports/resources for youth who have aged out of foster care. In addition to helping tackle the housing issue, this might include a drive to collect household items such as sheets, blankets, towels or school supplies for college-bound foster youth.
3) Donate gift cards to places like Boston Market, Olive Garden, or Perkins so that college students can enjoy a meal (that is not fast food…) over the holidays. You can contact your local child welfare agency or non-profit foster care agencies to assist with making the connection to young people in need of support. Or if you know of a young person who could use a helping hand, you can give it to them directly (or anonymously by mail).
4) Talk with local colleges/universities about setting up a faculty ‘host a student’ program. Through such a program, faculty can host a former foster youth for the holidays. The advantage is that the faculty member may already know the young person and they likely live in the same community as the college/university. This may also provide an excellent mentoring opportunity that can have a positive, long-term effect for the student.
5) Talk with the local high school about setting up a ‘host family’ program. Former teachers or coaches could host students during holiday breaks.
6) Talk with your local colleges/universities about setting up a holiday housing program in dormitories for former foster youth. Often there are also foreign students who also need housing. (Many larger universities offer some sort of accommodations.)
7) Check with your local YMCA, YWCA, or similar programs to see if they have temporary housing available. If so, offer to ‘pay it forward’ for a young person in need of housing over the holidays by providing rent (if there is a charge).
8) If you don’t have the space in your home to host a young person (or if you opted to assist as suggested in #7), invite students to participate in your holiday meal.
9) Support local foster parents who provide assistance to the young adults previously in their care. Offer to assist with buying school or work clothes. Donate grocery gift cards to offset the cost of food.
10) Provide transportation to college students who may have the opportunity to spend the holidays with former foster parents, friends, or family who do not live in the same community. This may be in the form of a bus or train ticket, airfare, or driving the student to their destination.
This may also apply when a young person attends a college/university in a community other than the one they lived in prior to age 18. What may seem like a short distance to travel can present insurmountable obstacles for a young person setting off for college with no car and limited resources.
These are just a few suggestions….feel free to add your ideas to the list!