Kent State Launches Program to Help Foster Teens Impacted by Opioid Crisis to Find Hope, Success in Their Futures

A teen who ages out of the foster care system is eight times more likely to become homeless than to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Think about that.

In fact, it is rare to attend a college commencement and find many graduates who spent time in foster care as only 3% who age out of the foster care system will go on to earn a degree. Increasing the graduation rate becomes even more difficult in Ohio where the number of children in foster care is expected to increase to 19,000 by 2020 and an additional 500-plus area children have been placed in foster care as a result of parental use of opioids.

“We know that many teens in foster care will age out of the foster care system without being adopted by age 18,” said Melody Tankersley, Kent State’s interim senior vice president and provost. “Because they’ve been in foster care, they might have missed some things that children and youth in a more stable environment might have experienced.”

A new Kent State partnership aims to help those teens facing these significant obstacles by providing them with guidance, support and most of all a pathway to success and hope for their futures. 

“The opioid crisis is just devastating communities as children are being put into foster care at high rates, and it’s putting a real crush on the Ohio foster care system,” said Amy Reynolds, dean of the College of Communication and Information at Kent State. “The goal is to get them prepared for and imagining themselves in college.”

Next Steps

Kent State will partner with First Star, a nonprofit charity founded 20 years ago that partners child welfare agencies with universities and school districts to ensure youth in foster care have the academic, life skills and adult support needed to successfully transition to higher education and adulthood. The goal is to engage foster care teens in college-preparatory programs that provide the foundational support they need to succeed in high school and envision a future that may include a college degree.

Tankersley and Reynolds led the charge to obtain a $500,000 OhioCorps Grant that the university will use to develop First Star – Kent State Academy to support 30 teens per cohort who are currently in foster care across nine local counties. The First Star – Kent State Academy is the first in the nation to focus on foster youth in foster care directly impacted by the opioid crisis.

This cohort of eighth graders will meet monthly with a team from Kent State and other social service programs to receive support via life skills, academics, family needs and opioid and drug education. Over the summer, the group will spend four weeks on the Kent Campus in an immersive environment.

“We will work with case workers to identify possible candidates,” Reynolds said. “This gives them more of a clear way to imagine themselves in college.”

The First Star – Kent State Academy will support the cohort for four years with an additional group of 30 teens added each year.

“I'm pleased that we are able to award this funding to five public universities that have plans in place to serve at-risk students in their region,” said Ohio Department of Higher Education Chancellor Randy Gardner. “Every student deserves the opportunity to succeed, and the OhioCorps Pilot Program Grant will help ensure that the students served by this program will get the support they need to achieve their goals.”

The First Star – Kent State Academy will be among the country’s only long-term college readiness programs for high school youth experiencing foster care that include both immersive residential summers on a university campus and monthly sessions during each school year. The academy will work with the foster youths’ caregivers, schools, social workers and attorneys to ensure students in foster care receive the necessary support to succeed in school and transition into adulthood.

Leading the Charge

Danielle Green-Welch, M.Ed., Ed.S., was recently hired as the academy’s first director. Green-Welch worked for more than five years as the inaugural supervisor for the Emancipation Unit with Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services where her primary role was to organize, implement and facilitate services and resources for youth who have aged out of the foster care system.

An advocate for children for more than 15 years, Green-Welch founded the DreamKeepers Program in 2003 to provide support for at-risk youth focusing on moral character, goal setting, financial intelligence and self-esteem.

“The factors that have the biggest impact on the outcomes of youth after aging out of foster care are the adult supporters that he/she has moving into young adulthood,” Green-Welch said. “It is my hope that youth who matriculate through the First Star – Kent State Academy will not only receive the skills and knowledge needed to move on to higher education, but that these youth will have multiple stable adult supporters to guide them as they move onward.”

Green-Welch hopes to have the first cohort attend several spring sessions on campus so that they can begin to bond with Kent State mentors and with one another. 

“It has been my purpose for many years to help those youth who are often marginalized and overlooked,” Green-Welch said. “Youth in foster care are unfortunately a part of this population, and I will do what I can to improve their outcomes after care. Ronald Reagan said it best when he said that ‘we can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone’ and that is what I intend to do as director.”

Beating the Odds

Keri Richmond knows that the journey of foster care to college is overwhelming and full of obstacles. Through personal determination and support, she joined a small percentage of her peers by earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations in 2017 from Kent State.

“There were times when I was younger where I did not think college would be a possibility,” Richmond said. “I wanted to go, but I had no idea how to navigate getting there. If it weren’t for people who supported me, encouraged me and took me on college visits, I would not be the first one in my family to graduate with a college degree.”

Richmond now serves as a lobbyist with a law firm in Washington, D.C., and supporting teens in foster care continues to hold a deep grip on her heart as it did when she launched a program to help teens in foster care during her time as a Kent State student.

“We should all see it as our duty to remind these youth they are not their past but that they can become whoever they want to be,” Richmond said. “Opportunities like the First Star – Kent State Academy are giving youth the chance to envision themselves at college, providing them with the much-needed support to get there and writing a new narrative.”

It Takes a Village

First Star – Kent State Academy will be supported by many community partners, including the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP), which is a coalition led by the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, and the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, and education partners, including Akron Public Schools. 

Organizers believe the likelihood for success seems to be high as nationally, First Star reports that 98% of its academy students graduate high school and 87% enter postsecondary education. 

Kent State’s First Star Academy hopes to mirror or exceed those results with the help of college students, faculty and staff members who know what is at stake.

“We’ve got a growing network of students at Kent State who were either in the foster care system or who care deeply about advocating for kids in the foster care system or who were impacted by the opioid crisis, and they are committed to helping our First Star – Kent State Academy students succeed,” Reynolds said.

POSTED: Wednesday, November 20, 2019 - 8:39am
UPDATED: Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 8:17am
Eric Mansfield