UB program supports kids who age out of foster care system


Alena Haskins got tired of house-hopping her freshmen year of college. She felt that she was a burden to her friends, but didn’t have many options when it came to where she would sleep at night.

Haskins, a psychology major, grew up as a foster child under the care of her great aunt. When she graduated from high school, she no longer received support from her aunt and became homeless. She started school at SUNY Delhi and graduated with her associates before coming to UB, a much larger school with just as many financial burdens.

But UB had a support group for students like Haskins.

As foster children age out of the foster care system, they are sometimes unsure of whether or not higher education is an option because of the financial obligations that come along with it. According to the National Center for Child Welfare Excellence, less than 10 percent of foster youth go to college and an even smaller number graduate.

UB has created a former foster youth program to help transition these youth through college. The program was initiated about a year ago and is through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and Student Support Services (SSS) and works with the UB School of Social Work.

“I feel that I now have people I can talk to and I know I’m not going through what I’ve been going through by myself,” Haskins said. “I didn’t grow up with family or my real parents so it was a struggle.”

UB gives an emancipated foster student program fund to students who are currently or were in foster care. Students must be a ward of the court or must have received foster care on or after their 16th birthday while living in the United States.

The program aims to connect these former foster youth with each other and provide conversation, activities and food during meetings. The program is currently servicing about 21students on campus, according to Lani Jendrowski, the senior counselor for EOP.

“Usually these students age out, so when they’re 18 or 21 they don’t have a support network,” said Beth Ebert, a graduate intern in a UB social work program. “A lot of them don’t have families that can help them move in or financial support so they’re really on their own trying to navigate through the university and because of that there is a significant dropout rate.”

A few years ago, Tyler Harding, the director of the Office of Development, was in California when he met the Harmon family, who was interested in helping former foster youth at UB. At that time, there wasn’t an existing program.

Harding came back to UB and said there needed to be a formal program to help these students.

Jendrowski was unable to provide an exact amount for the grant but said the Harmon family, who is funding the program, has made a five-year commitment.

This funding helps with the former foster youth’s number one problem: finances.

Ebert said a few students have had trouble waiving the health insurance fee and as a result a hold was put on their student accounts and they were unable to register for classes the following semester.

She also said a lot of college students don’t understand how the Free Application of Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, works, but they normally have their families to help with the process of filling out the information. Ebert helps students keep track of the financial details.

“Things like that can literally stop them in their tracks when trying to move forward with their education and it’s unfortunate because they’re here working so hard so its frustrating that financial issues can keep them from continuing,” Ebert said.

Although the grants go specifically to students who are receiving or have received foster care, Jendrowski wants students to know that even if they were never registered as a foster child, the program will not turn them away.

Cornato Vella, a senior mechanical engineering major, said his learning disability and homeless past made it difficult for him to pursue a college education compared to other students.

He said he knew he wanted to be a mechanical engineer when he was 13 years old. He is originally from Malta, located in southern Europe, and when he was 17, his parents moved back overseas because his father was sick and couldn’t afford healthcare in the United States.

Vella had no choice but to finish high school on his own in New York City.

He worked a part-time job to pay for rent, but there was a point when he couldn’t afford it anymore and became homeless.

When Vella was in high school, he secretly lived with a friend. He would leave early in the morning and come back late at night to avoid his friend’s parents. He knew getting caught was a huge risk and he could be put out on the streets at any moment.

He worked a part-time job to save up for college and took a gap year after he graduated from high school.

But the transition into college wasn’t easy. Vella had a difficult time grasping the curriculum.

He said he has problems learning directly from a professor and has to find new ways to teach himself the information.

“Between being homeless and struggling with school, I was putting myself under a lot of stress,” Vella said. “But I tried to continue to stay focused.”

Vella is currently in the EOP program at UB and said it has helped him sufficiently.

“I can’t afford to live on campus so this [EOP] funding has made it possible for me to come here and stay clear of a big debt,” Vella said. “If it weren’t for this, I would have a much harder time financially.”

Vella said his EOP mentors made a big difference in his life, often giving him “tough love” and motivating him to pursue a higher education.

He cannot receive the large funding from the former foster youth program because he was never registered as a foster child.

In order to qualify for the program, Vella would’ve had to go through the court system. He avoided the courts when he was in high school because there was a possibility his school would not have let him continue.

“I basically had to do it all under the table,” Vella said.

But Vella is still involved in the program. He attends the meetings and meets with Ebert and Jendrowski.

Vella is graduating from UB this winter and the first thing he’ll do is visit his family in Europe that he hasn’t seen in five years. He wants to get a job in aerospace or aeronautical engineering and also has an interest in renewable energy.

Haskins, like Vella, has taken advantages of the opportunities this program has given her to pursue her career.

She plans on graduating this upcoming May and has many aspirations, including owning a daycare, joining the air force, becoming a social worker and more.

“I have a pretty long list, but I’m sure I’ll achieve them all before I die,” Haskins said.

The program has also given insight to those who did not battle with the foster care system but instead help those who’ve had.

Ebert chose to work with the former foster youth program for her field placement. She is the “go-between” between these students and the university. She said one common burden these students might have is the insurance waiver and students go to her for help.

“It’s been great working with people who are really disenfranchised in the system,” Ebert said. “The best part about it is it’s a great group of people to work with. They don’t quit and they’re so inspired and that’s helped me a lot in my professional development.”

The feeling of gratitude is mutual.

Haskins said her relationship with the mentors and administration in the program has motivated her to continue pursuing what she came to UB for in the first place. She wants other students to join and benefit from it as well.

Since the program is new, the administratorsare still trying to find new ways to reach out to former foster youth.

“Our hardest obstacle is actually having the students come forward,” Jendrowski said.

Administration currently tries to find former foster youth through their FAFSA applications. But Jendrowski said for those who may not be listed, there is a place on campus for them to receive help and funding.

Jendrowski said there are lots of resources out there but students aren’t aware of them. Some of which include $7,000 grants a year.

“This program has made me realize not to let my past determine my future and talking with other members, I see there are other people who share the same things I do,” Haskins said. “It makes me see how much I’ve accomplished.”

Gabriela Julia is the senior news editor and can be reached at gabriela.julia@ubspectrum.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GabrielaaJulia.