19 Dec Hitting Roadblocks to Higher Education
I recently hung out with Gi’Nia Stone, 20, who graduated from our first Orange Duffel Bag Foundation (www.ODBF.org) coaching class in August of 2010. With our encouragement, Gi’Nia, who graduated third in her high school class despite going through two failed adoptions and being shifted to several foster homes since entering foster care at age six, applied and was accepted to Agnes Scott College. When she turned age 18, Gi’Nia originally made the decision to sign herself back into care, which allowed her to continue with the Independent Living Program (ILP). However, like the majority of young people, who have been in foster care and make the decision to sign themselves back in, Gi’Nia is no longer enrolled in ILP. She’s given me permission to share some of her story in the hopes that it will help raise awareness of what it’s like to age out of foster care and become a legal orphan – the government’s term.
Gi’Nia, eloquent and beautiful, has been a straight A student throughout high school. She is now a junior at Agnes Scott and studying neuroscience. Since reading Ben Carson’s inspirational memoir “Healing Hands,” she has dreamed of becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon. But since she’s been at Agnes Scott, she has struggled to get enough money to buy her textbooks, and her grades suffered as a result. While she was still signed up with ILP, the MARTA card she was supposed to get for transportation from her case manager rarely made it to her each month. She couldn’t afford the dorm, so she got a small apartment off-campus.
Frugal and conscientious, Gi’Nia doesn’t complain. She takes responsibility and has only recently begun to share her story, largely to help other young people in the foster care system. She has a part-time job, but it’s commission-based. Like so many young people – Georgia has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates among teens — she’s struggling to find a job that will help her pay her bills. And this weekend she got a letter notifying her that her scholarships and grants didn’t quite cover her tuition this semester, so she can’t return to school until that bill is paid.
Gi’Nia is determined to find a decent job, so she can take care of that bill and return to her studies. “School is what I’ve always been good at,” she says, acknowledging that she’s struggled the last few semesters, due to the stress of having to get her own place, buying her first car to get her back and forth to work, juggling work and school and trying to budget to buy the books she needs.
Many of our ODBF graduates are now in college. Virtually all of them have hit similar roadblocks. Their classes get dropped because a bill went unpaid. They cannot afford books. They are required to work to pay for a portion of their housing, but also required to take a full load to maintain scholarships. They don’t have anywhere to live during college breaks when the dorms and cafeterias close. They don’t have transportation to get to their jobs and schools, because the budget to purchase MARTA cards has been slashed and they cannot afford cars.
All through high school, Gi’Nia received assurances that college would be taken care of for her. A law was passed a few years ago that was supposed to guarantee funding for any college student who had been in foster care, but it’s something called an unfunded mandate. What’s the point of having a law on the books without providing any funding for it? Only 3% of all teens who have been in foster care go on to college. Only 2% of those who manage to beat the odds and go to college graduate in four years with a college degree. Yet a recent report released here in Georgia states that 70% of all jobs in our state will require a four-year degree at a minimum by 2020.
When a young person who has overcome so much cannot get the support he or she needs to achieve a powerful life plan, we all lose. So how can you help?
• Talk to your government officials about reforming foster care for those 18-21 year olds, who want to sign themselves back into care. A handful of states have extended care to age 21, rather than ending it at age 18, which is the current age when foster care ends in the state of Georgia.
• Donate to an emergency fund earmarked for our ODBF college students. Give gift cards for Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers where our students can get needed books, supplies, clothes, and toiletries.
• Consider making a year-end donation to ODBF.
• Sign up on our website to be an advocate. We have six classes partially funded for next year, and we need advocates for each of them.
Your gift and volunteerism can help a young person achieve a life beyond her or his wildest dreams.