August 31, 2011

Champions Program: From foster care to future graduates

The Champions Program is partnering with the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity and Undergraduate advising to collect clothing and school supplies for the annual drive sponsored by Treehouse, a local agency that works with foster kids. A bin for donations is available in 141 Mary Gates Hall through Sept. 9. For monetary contributions, contact Melissa Raap, uwchamps@uw.edu.

Maddy Day, left, helped found the Champions Program, which is currently directed by Melissa Raap.

Mary Levin

Maddy Day, left, helped found the Champions Program, which is currently directed by Melissa Raap.

James Harmon entered state care at age 10 and spent the next five years in 22 different foster homes. But today he is a UW graduate who will start the doctoral program in political science this fall. What helped him on that difficult journey? At 16 he met a social worker who became his guardian — a woman he now calls mom — and she made sure he got to college and was always there when he needed advice.

But Harmon recognizes that most foster kids dont have such a person in their lives. Thats why hes been volunteering for the UW Champions, a program that provides support for youth and alumni of foster care.

On Sept. 9 and 10 the champions will hold their Future Champions Invitational, an event where they invite to campus high school juniors and seniors who have been in foster care. Here, the students meet other people like themselves, attend workshops about such things as admissions and financial aid and attend a football game using tickets donated by Intercollegiate Athletics.

As a peer mentor at last years event, Harmons job was to get to know the students and talk to them as one foster kid to another.

From left, James Harmon, Makenna O'Meara and Jessica Sachara were peer mentors at last years Future Champions Invitational. Harmon and OMeara graduated in June, and Harmon enters graduate school this fall, but he is on the board for the Champions Program. Sachara is a junior this year and still involved in the program.

“There was this one student who came, he was a pretty cocky guy, the standard tough guy, trying to be macho in front of all the kids,” Harmon said. “It was like he was saying, ‘I dont need to be here, I was forced to be here. Foster kids dont like to talk about their problems to the general public because the general public doesnt understand. How could they possibly understand what its like to have the people who bring you into the world completely screw you over? But when youre with another foster kid its different. Youre able to open up, youre able to talk about those problems.

“So I started to get to know this student. We started talking a little bit more, and I tried to be his friend and to guide him. I said, ‘You dont have to play tough guy all the time. Were all just trying to help. That kind of opened his eyes, and by the time he left he was gung ho. He wanted to be a Husky. That was very powerful.”

The student was one of 27 in the group; a similar number will be here this year.

In addition to the annual invitational, the Champions Program holds a Transfer Day for alums of foster care who are in community college, and they work with area agencies that are involved with foster kids — offering campus visits for high school and middle school students.

This is only the second full year for the UW Champions Program. It was born when Maddy Day, then a graduate student in social work, brought the idea to Sheila Edwards Lange, vice president for minority affairs and vice provost for diversity. Lange had already been talking with community members about how best to serve alumni of foster care, and enthusiastically approved when Day offered to do an organizational assessment on the subject as a class project. After that, Lange invited Day to create a new program, to be housed in Counseling Services within the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity.

Day worked with Jennifer Schoen, who was overseeing the Governors Scholars, a scholarship program for alumni of foster care. They created a board and launched the program in April of 2010. Schoen has since left the University and Melissa Raap has become the head of the Champions Program. Day remains chair of the board and an enthusiastic supporter.

Unlike the Governors Scholars and many other scholarship programs for foster care alumni, the Champions Program has no age limit for participation. Anyone who has been in foster care is eligible. The 45 current students at the UW range in age from 18 to 42.

“Its estimated that only 3 percent of students who emancipate out of foster care will graduate from a four year college, ” Raap said. “But its not due to lack of interest; its due to the many barriers these students face. Our program is trying to break down barriers.”

In addition to the outreach activities, The Champions Program provides ongoing support for foster care alumni attending the UW. Raap serves as their central point of contact for getting whatever help they might need.

The Future Champions Invitational, which brings high school students in foster care to campus, always ends at a football game, thanks to tickets donated by Intercollegiate Athletics.

The Future Champions Invitational, which brings high school students in foster care to campus, always ends at a football game, thanks to tickets donated by Intercollegiate Athletics.

“Most students can call home and say, Im worried, what should I do, should I major in this, whatever,” Day said. “But many alumni of care emancipate and come out into the world having been in a system thats made a lot of decisions for them, and now theyre thrown into independence where they get to make a lot of decisions but dont quite have someone to guide them through those decisions. Thats a big role Melissa takes on — helping, mentoring them through the decisions of their lives.”

On a more concrete level, Raap also points the students to resources they may need, such as tutoring or financial aid. A big need is often housing, because foster kids may not have a home to go to during quarter breaks. Housing & Food Services has been very helpful in finding places for them, Raap said, and Student Financial Services works with champion students to put together financial packages that meet their unique needs.

It was Day who chose the name Champions for the program because, she said, she “wants students to feel like they are set for success before they even get here.” Both she and Raap have experience as case workers with foster kids and alums of foster care and are passiona
te about the program.

The students who become part of it are equally passionate about taking part in the outreach programs.

“My big thing is to try to provide the same kind of support to other students that I received,” Harmon said. “I think thats the most valuable thing about the Champions Program. Were here for these students, to really give them that network that they dont have at home.”