Justin Vinge, Josephine Davis and Mariah Hottell have a lot in common. They’re bright, articulate and successful college students. They’ve also been called disposable, unwanted and told they’d never succeed. These Spokane Falls Community College students are former foster youth who are proving their detractors wrong.
Recently, the three shared their stories at a College Success Foundation storytelling workshop in Issaquah, Wash. The foundation funds and administers several scholarship programs like Passport to College Promise, which makes it possible for foster care youth to attend college.
“We’re all part of the Passport program,” said Hottell, 19. For young people who’ve spent their childhoods moving from house to house, never feeling like they belonged, the sense of community they’ve found at SFCC is empowering.
On a recent afternoon, they met in the Student Union Building to talk about their shared experience. They wore black T-shirts imprinted with a bold upward-pointing arrow, designed by 20-year-old Vinge. He said the arrow has two meanings. “It points to the person wearing the shirt and it also means to rise above. I kind of wanted to speak for everyone,” explained Vinge. “We as a whole will rise above.” Gray lettering on the shirt says “Foster Care Alumni.”
He grinned. “We want to beat the crap out of the stereotype.”
Many believe that foster youth are high school dropouts with dim futures. It is estimated that less than 3 percent of all foster youth complete college. Most don’t even finish high school and many end up homeless.
Tammy Messing, program support supervisor at SFCC, said, “Currently, we have 20 to 30 foster care alumni – the fact that we have three students graduating is incredibly successful.”
But Vinge said in Washington, the number of foster kids who graduate from high school and do well in college is surprisingly high. Davis, 22, agreed. “Our region does particularly well. I think it’s because of the support system we have here in Spokane.”
Housing, transportation and money management can be difficult for kids who’ve aged out of the foster care system. But, Messing said, a network of support in the area, including Volunteers of America education advocate Alene Alexander, is making a difference.
That difference is best illustrated in the success of these students who share their stories to encourage other foster youth.
“Lots of kids feel hopeless, but we can beat the system,” Hottell said.
For her, “the system” felt like a normal part of life. Child Protective Services was frequently involved with her family. By age 10, Hottell was drinking and smoking pot. “When I was a sophomore we were taken from my mom. I’m the oldest of six. It was really hard at first,” she said.
Eventually she moved in with her grandmother, where she stayed until she graduated from high school. She also found nurturing and solace at a church youth group. “The reason I am where I am is because people have told me, by their actions, that I am worth their time and money, that I am valuable and that I am worth investing in,” Hottell said. “My church family has been very supportive.”
She finds additional motivation in being a good role model for her 9-year-old sister, Kayla. “I get to have her over on the weekends.”
Hottell recently received her associate’s degree and plans to continue her education at Gonzaga University or Whitworth University. She attributes her achievement in large part to the foundation. “They have taken so much of the financial pressure and stress of how I’ll pay for college off of me, which allows me to focus on my education.”
Vinge said a lot of his story is hazy, but he counts his obliviousness as a blessing. “When I turned 6 my family life started jumping around a bit.”
At 10 he was placed with his aunt and uncle. “The worst part was not being with my mom or my sister,” Vinge said. But though he had to grow up quickly, he persevered and will graduate from SFCC this quarter. He plans to attend Eastern Washington University.
Vinge stays focused on the positive. He points to his shirt. “Despite the hard times we’ve had, we’re going to rise above.”
For Davis, staying positive proved difficult. She was placed in foster care at age 6 and stayed in her original placement home until 18.
The message she heard from her foster mother haunted her. In her story for the Issaquah workshop she wrote that she was constantly told, “There is no light at the end of the tunnel. The grass is not greener on the other side. You are not normal and you’ll never succeed – you are a foster child, so you have no future.”
Nothing softened the blow of the words that fell like stones from her foster mother’s lips. With Vinge and Hottell sitting nearby, she recalled those years. “I’m not going to lie – it was hard.” Her dark eyes filled with emotion.
Like many who age out of the system, Davis endured homelessness and felt abandoned by her foster mother. But she said during that time she learned some important life lessons. “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in it. I danced in the emotional and physical abuse. I danced in the abandonment. I danced in the college courses that you think you’d never pass. One thing I love about storms is they pass.”
After finding work and a place to live, Davis said she initially struggled with fears of college inadequacy. “When I first came to SFCC I thought, ‘Can I really do this?’ ”
Yet, now she’s only three classes away from graduation and plans to attend EWU in the fall.
Like Vinge and Hottell she’s determined to use her story to help kids in foster care. “We’re stepping up to the plate,” Davis said.
Her eyes lit up. “Everyone is beautiful and capable of pursuing their passion and what they were made for!”
Then she smiled. “I think I am beautiful,” she said. “And I’m proud to be foster alumni.”