Program propels foster children

Posted: June 12, 2013

The Winchester Star

Lord Fairfax Community College student Kaitlyn Arena is flanked by her Great Expectations coach Carla Newman (left) and her foster mother Laurie Fishel. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
Arena, a Winchester native, lived in an abusive and unstable home — a situation she decided had to change.

WINCHESTER — Kaitlyn Arena once went to bed worried that she wouldn’t have food to eat for the next day.

The city native lived in an abusive and unstable home — an arrangement that led her to choose foster care two years ago.

“When I was 16, I decided I didn’t need to be in this situation,” said Arena, now 18.

Laurie Fishel was given information about her new foster child. Arena’s parents and counselors told her that due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and childhood trauma, she would never graduate from high school or go to college.

But she will attend Lord Fairfax Community College this summer with the help of Great Expectations — a program that supports LFCC students who are in, or were a part of, the foster care system.

“When [foster children] get to college, it’s ‘There’s nobody here to help me, and I don’t know what to do, so maybe this is not the right thing for me,’” said Fishel. “This program helps.”

Great Expectations was launched in 2008 in the Virginia Community College System and has been implemented in 17 of its 23 schools — including LFCC.

About 25 students are in the program at the Middletown school.

Carla Newman, program coach, guides students over various college hurdles — she helps them to enroll, outlines the options available at the school, provides a checklist of needed documents and important deadlines and makes sure students are up to date on financial aid and their coursework through constant emails and weekly calls.

Newman joked that she could be called a “nagger.”

“We need to help these students to bridge from high school to college and complete a degree so they can be productive members of society,” she said. “As the coach, I help my students through each step of the process.”

Newman also consults with leaders at area high schools, where she plants the seed in foster care students that college is something they can do.

The program was created in response to the higher number of foster care teens and adults who do not finish high school or college, compared to those who are not in foster care.

Often, these people have no family to encourage them and are dealing with past trauma. They may also be homeless and lack transportation.

“The focus has so often been on staying alive that no one was talking to me about ‘You can go to college,’” Arena said.

To be eligible for the program, students must be 16 to 24 and have been, or are in, foster care or special-needs adoptions.

Of adults nationwide who were formerly in foster care, 74 percent completed high school — compared to 84 percent of the general population aged 25 to 34, according to a 2010 study by Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest foundation focused on foster care and improving the child welfare system.

Between 3 percent and 11 percent of foster care adults went on to complete a bachelor’s degree, compared to 28 percent in the general population.

The program is funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Virginia Community College System and private donations.

White House Foods, a Winchester-based apple processing company, also supports Great Expectations. This year, the company sponsored a sold-out concert at Winchester Church of God and donated the $28,000 in proceeds to the program.

Without Newman’s help, Arena and Fishel said they would be butting heads and pulling out hair because they would not know what to do to successfully enroll Arena in college.

“I think [would have been] really lost,” Arena said. “I don’t think I would have made it this far.”

She plans to earn an associate’s degree in general studies and then transfer to Shenandoah University to major in music therapy.

Fishel said Great Expectations is “near and dear” to her heart.

“I want other people to know you’re not alone when you go,” she said. “There are options available.”

— Contact Rebecca Layne at rlayne@winchesterstar.com