Wheeler: Wake Tech program gives foster children a fighting chance

During Veronica Armstrong’s childhood, her small shoulders carried large burdens into chaotic houses all over Wake and Johnston counties and in and out of two group homes and two foster homes.

The instability, the scars from her mother’s mental illness and the sadness from losing touch with beloved siblings dispersed into adoption and foster care could have been weights that pulled her under.

But Armstrong, now 24, carried something else with her as well: the conviction that she would be the first in her family to graduate from college.

On Saturday, she will defy long odds – only 50 percent of foster children even graduate from high school; 2 percent from post-secondary education – when she accepts an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Wake Tech Community College.

In her navy-blue cap and gown, she also will stand before the crowd as the first graduate of Wake Tech’s Fostering Bright Futures program, a private-public partnership that provides scholarships, tutors and life coaches to former Wake foster children who qualify.

“Without the program, I would still be successful,” says Armstrong, who lives in Raleigh. “I had a made-up mind when I joined. But I would have been walking a bit bent over. And I’d be lost.”

In 2007, Raleigh architect Kenn Gardner, then a Republican county commissioner, was founding chairman of an investment fund that gave college scholarships to foster children. Gardner soon realized, however, that money alone was not enough to help ill-equipped kids whose most finely honed life skill was coping.

The resulting Fostering Bright Futures program adds one-on-one assistance to financial aid.

“Obviously, we can’t undo their lives,” says Acton Archie, chairman of the program’s advisory board and a former foster child himself. “But we take away a lot of the challenges they have and free them up to really focus on school.”

Armstrong was among the first five students accepted into the program in 2008. The fact that it took her four years to earn a two-year degree underscores her persistence, as does her status as the program’s first graduate.

“The transition was not good because I got lazy on the school front,” says Armstrong, explaining that she has been working since she was taken from her mother at age 14. “My second two years were great. I’ve seen A-B honor roll. I made the Dean’s List.”

That’s one of the things that commend the program, which will have 13 participants next fall. There has been enough oversight that problems have been corrected.

“At first we were all idealists,” says Archie, an analyst at SAS in Cary. “We thought, ‘Every child we can get our arms around we’re going to bring in.’ After the first year, we had to step back. Now we have some pretty serious demands for the children.”

Program coordinator Michelle Blackmon says incentives have replaced outright monetary help in several areas. Instead of just helping with a cellphone bill, now the program offers $100 for every A earned with no absences, $50 for every B. A report card with all A’s earns double.

“Fall semester, they did exceptionally well,” Blackmon says. “ Our students went from a 0.9 average GPA to a 2.5.”

The advisory board, which interviews applicants referred by Wake’s Department of Health and Human Services, also has tweaked its techniques.

“We’re not looking for perfect students, just somebody who is going to put forth the effort,” Archie says. “Many of these kids try to grow up very quickly, try to find houses, try to find a means for survival. They don’t have time to spend toward education.”

It’s hard to imagine a group with more obstacles to overcome than foster children aging out of the system.

“I just try to learn from my mistakes, and I try to learn from other people’s experiences,” Armstrong says.

“If you’ve seen what I’ve seen,” she says more quietly, “it beats going through ’em.”

Though her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder when Armstrong was 12, she says the signs were evident long before. She enumerates a list of homes she had around Raleigh even while her family, with nine children, was intact. Armstrong, who works as a hostess at WakeMed, has lived on her own since age 17.

“My environment is a part of me, but I’m not a product of my environment,” Armstrong says. “I’m not ashamed, but I want more. I’ve seen more. I’m destined for more.”

This month, Armstrong will take an even larger step toward more when she enrolls at UNC Greensboro. Without the help of Blackmon and Bright Futures life coach Robin Sheffield, Armstrong says, she never could have maneuvered the application process or envisioned such a move.

“There’s just no words, no one word to sum up where I’d be without them,” she says. “I guess just lost.”

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