Alfonso Taylor knows how painful life in foster care can be. When he was an infant, his mother was shot and killed by his father. Soon after, he and his sister, Kimberly, and younger brother, Jose, became foster children.
Statistics show that only 50 percent of kids who age out of foster care graduate high school, and a quarter become homeless within two to four years. Fewer than three percent of foster kids will graduate from college by age 25.
Alfonso and his siblings were among the small percentage of kids who beat the odds and graduated from college. They likely would not have been able to do so without the help of Lynne Martin and Barb Hendricks.
The two compassionate women are the founders of Students Rising Above (SRA), a San Francisco nonprofit that's sent nearly 320 exceptional students “who have faced homelessness and sexual abuse or [have] bounced from one relative to the other,” to some of the best colleges in the U.S.
Seventy-three percent of SRA students come from foster care or don’t live at home with parents.
Lynne Martin tells TakePart that helping these teens get through college takes more than a tuition check and a wish for the best.
The Students Rising Above model starts during a student’s junior year in high school and follows him/her beyond college graduation. When it's time to select students, Martin and Hendricks look for strength of character, the ability to impact others, and education commitment, with GPAs that range from 2.8 to 4.0.
Martin says that SRA becomes involved in students’ lives while they are juniors in high school because the year leading into college is as critical as their freshman year. Each student gets an SRA mentor for one-on-one guidance on a wide range of topics such as financial literacy, supplemental scholarship applications, dorm supplies, and life problems.
“This is the first time some of these kids have had a full-time adult in their lives,” Martin says. “Many times when we first meet them at 17, they will say, ‘How much money do I get?’ By the time, they graduate, they say, ‘You know, the money was great, but you’ve become our family.’ The relationships made between the SAR advisor and the student is a strong bond. They report back long after they graduate.”
Students in the program also receive healthcare, which they may not have had growing up in a turbulent, impoverished home. In addition, they are provided with a summer internship.
Martin says they have improved their program yearly. For example, when Kimberly Taylor went to college she had no bedding or supplies for her dorm room or a computer. She thought the college would provide such things. SAR stepped in and brought her everything she needed.
“The great takeaway is we now send every student with a laptop, bedding, printer, and dorm supplies,” she says.
The SRA model is to tell the students that the money they receive is a loan. The only way to pay it back is to pay it forward.
“We aren’t just influencing the impact of our students. This will have an impact on their future children, who will likely go to college,” Martin says. “Now you have a parent that is a role model. We are showing that there is another viable option other than living in poverty or selling drugs on the street. It’s not an easy path, but there is a path.”
Since the organization began, the success rate has been phenomenal. Ninety percent of kids in the program graduate college, and 85 percent volunteer in their communities.
“As a society and as a country we have a decision to make: We can invest in the education of our kids, or we can do something less than that,” Martin says. “Education is more cost-effective and more rewarding and better than the alternative—social welfare and incarceration. The return on an investment multiplies after students enter that workforce as employees and leaders, as they pay taxes and volunteer in communities. When you invest in students, the return is priceless.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com