There are 58,000 children in foster care in California and for many of them turning eighteen and aging out of care is overwhelming. Counties provide independent living programs to assist foster youth with this transition, but a different type of support is needed for those entering college. When former foster youth Kizzy Lopez was asked to help create a program at Fresno State to provide support for this incoming population, she made it happen.
Since the Renaissance Scholars Program’s inception three years ago, over seventy former foster youth at Fresno State have benefitted from the non-profit’s assistance. Tracey Scharmann brings us this report. ----
On a cooler than usual early summer evening in Fresno, this mother and daughter take turns pushing each other on a swinging contraption at the park. It’s easy to see this child doesn’t have a care in the world at this moment. But that’s not the case for the nearly half-a-million kids living in foster care in the United States. “I was initially placed in foster care when I was four or five years old. I bounced around to over five homes within a year and eventually I was placed with a friend of my grandmothers and ultimately that’s where I stayed for the rest of the 11 years in care. I aged out of care in her home.”
That’s Kenyan Whitman and he remembers what it felt like to turn 18 while being a foster youth, “It was a pretty scary moment. It was a scary journey.”
Almost half of the children placed in foster care are reunited with their parents within the year, but for over 4,000 teens in California that never happens and they can be left to face adulthood on their own. Whitman recalls his foster family helping him through the process of applying for college. “I remember actually filling out the applications all in one night and calling her and it was kind of complicated and her talking me through the steps for instance like income, she’s like put zero. You’re a 17-year-old foster youth, you have no money, put zero so I could get the fee waivers and things like that.”
Whitman had always excelled in high school and didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be to juggle being an athlete and a college student out on his own. Whitman says, “My first semester I only passed one class, so that was something that I didn’t anticipate. I remember pulling up my grades and going, whoa interesting.”
After getting a tough love talking to by his coach, he knew he had to make school his first priority and raised his GPA and passed all his classes the following semester. It was about this time that Whitman was admitted into Renaissance Scholars Program (RSP), which is in its third year at Fresno State.
Whitman was inspired to go farther academically, “As far as the Renaissance Scholars Program, I think they take good students and make them great. They kind of show you that graduate school is possible.” Whitman is now the Resident Director of Fresno State’s Student Housing and half way through his masters program. RSP provides scholarships, stipends, and support for former foster youth at Fresno State. Before RSP foster youth hadn’t fared so well at the 20,000-student campus. But RSP is changing that; the program has an 86% retention rate and over 70 students that have gone through the program. Kizzy Lopez, RSP Coordinator, “So they’re very resilient and resourceful to begin with but life wears on you, so that’s what we’re here for to say here’s these resources and those resources, so let’s get it done.”
Lopez, a former foster youth herself, can relate to her students. She had seventy-five cents in her pocket and a job at Wendys when she left home at 18-years-old. She “couch surfed” for a few months, going from friends house to friends house until her aunt helped her secure a small place of her own. Lopez was doing this all on her own when her mom dropped off her 8-year old sister and didn’t come back for 18 months. Lopez and her twin sister adopted her. “My relationship with my siblings was a critical part of my success. Both being a provider to my younger sister and the emotional connection. So I’m glad to know there are siblings rights for youth even if parental rights are terminated so in that way I can relate a lot to my students.”
California alone has 15,000 children waiting for a permanent home. And the kids that come through RSP receive lots of support, but no pity from Lopez, “And I tease my students and say back in my day I didn’t have all these grants and independent living programs.”
Lopez knows that rent is due on the first and Spring financial aid disbursements don’t happen until mid-January, so the program caters around that so students have money all year round. RSP has been instrumental in creating year round housing on campus for students, and even has an emergency fund for unexpected expenses that parents would normally pay for. Broken glasses or other unseen expenses can have a domino effect on students struggling to stay afloat and RSP works with former foster youth’s unique situations. Holiday dinners, potlucks and other get togethers are also part of the program. “Social events and it’s not to kill time. It’s very critical to their emotional wellbeing. So it’s really to build a sense of community and let them know they belong and build a sense of family and connect them with other students because it can be very isolating to feel like no one else is going through the same thing” says Lopez.
Deshunna Ricks was a Renaissance Scholar. She had entered foster care at the age of 8-years-old and ran away from wherever she was placed with her older sister and brother. Ricks recalls, “We ran away from our placements because we didn’t want to be there. It just somewhere where you don’t want to be. You don’t know the person your with, there’s things you go through that they can’t relate to or they do things to you that are worse than what your parents to do you, we just didn’t want to be there so we ran from all of our placements until we got placed with our grandmother.”
Ricks is now a Cultural Broker and is pursuing a masters degree in social work and then plans on getting her PhD. “I want to get the highest degree possible and start pulling up those people who do lack opportunities who don’t have the resources, who are outcasts, who are marginalized, who are oppressed, so that’s what I want to do.”
Rick’s high school coach, English teacher and many others not only encouraged her to go to college, but helped her fill out the financial aid forms and applications. She attributes much of her success to her grandmother who ended up raising her and her seven siblings. “She saw something on me that I didn’t see in myself. She was always proud of me, she was always bragging on me and I’m like this lady is crazy.”
Ricks and Whitman both found excelled in sports and had people in their lives who believed in them. Whitman says it’s up to the person, “You either end up like my brother who can’t cope with what they’re going through so they express themselves in a negative manner and that’s the large majority of youth and the small percent are resilient and overcome it because you have to grow up or I’m going to fall by the waste side.”
The Renaissance Scholars Program was given some large seed donations to get it up and running. The challenge now is to get the community more involved. Lopez, “The downside of these gifts is that given from these foundations is that there not long term. It’s meant temporarily to get your feet off the ground and find other funding sources.”
The average high school GPA of a foster child in Fresno County is just below a 2.0. Fresno County high school graduation rate has increased 20% over the past three years and the Department of Child and Family Services works with many programs around the valley like this one to assist kids who are aging out of foster care. Lopez knows these youth, “They’re a ward of the state so our tax dollars go to taking care of these young people. So they’re our youth, they’re not somebody else’s youth. These are our young people and they’re worth investing in.”