The girl’s father lost job after job. Her family often lived on throwaway food begged from local grocery stores. Stressed out and drinking heavily, her parents beat her brothers or locked them inside closets when they misbehaved. Her mother shook knives in the children's faces and terrorized them with graphic threats. Her parents were so drowned in booze and woes that the children became almost feral, a litter of sad-eyed pups tumbling in the yard.
Still, her parents weren't monsters. They did the best they could. They pushed all four kids to excel in school because their achievements raised mom’s and dad’s self-esteem, even wringing some respect from their own parents and sibs, who lived more presentable lives.
The four youngsters were never put in foster care. High expectations from the adults they felt close to propelled them through high school. Two finished college, and all held stable jobs through the years. None became a public burden by landing in prison or on welfare. Their parents’ desire to make them shine in society’s eyes may have sprung from their own narcissism, but it helped the kids discover strengths and resilience in themselves. I know this because the girl was me.
All children, especially foster children, need the emotional investment of an adult in order to be successful in school and at life. The foster child's future success must matter to one or more grownups who will walk alongside the child, exhorting her or him to work hard and aim high. Without that kind of caring and support, childhood traumas practically guarantee a troubled life.
Research shows that children separated from their primary caregivers are less able to regulate their emotions, control their behavior or persist in the face of intellectual challenges. (One study is here). Fortunately, research on brain development also shows that positive adult interventions can help these youngsters make up for early cognitive and emotional deficits. Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed is a fascinating, hopeful narrative about the positive impact of sustained adult mentoring.
Washington state is home to several innovative mentoring programs that connect foster kids with adults who provide ongoing personal support that boosts their competence and self-sufficiency. Here are five Washington mentoring programs that are changing the future for foster kids:
Champions Program (University of Washington)
David Inglish (below) is a former foster child who is now a University of Washington sophomore. David lived with his biological parents until he was 12. They never shared any hopeful expectations about his future. Until he was placed with a foster family, says David, “I didn't think I’d amount to anything.” College, he adds, “was something a kid from a normal household would have access to.”
UW senior Jessica Sachara recalls that growing up as a foster child “was about surviving what I was going through at the time — how I was going to eat and get to school — not about the future.”
The UW Champions Program changed David's and Jessica’s lives. Champions recruits and mentors low-income high-schoolers who have spent a year or more in foster care after age 16. They must be the first generation in their birth or foster families to attend college. Champions students get the emotional and academic support they need to succeed at the UW and prepare for lifelong achievement.
Program director Melissa Raap personally contacts eligible students in the Washington foster care system. She invites them to overnight recruitment events on the UW campus, helps them apply to the university and guides their searches for financial aid. Youth who are admitted to the program receive warm personal mentoring throughout their years on campus.
That’s important, says Sachara, because the UW can be a challenging place. When things get tough, she can “drop into Melissa’s office and talk or cry,” says Sachara. “She helps me get through hard times.”
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