Leaving home and entering college, the workplace, the military or some other endeavor as a young adult can be an intimidating transition. But for youth who don’t have the support of a family, facing realities of being an adult can be especially difficult. This week, at Washburn University in Topeka, dozens of youth are taking part in a summer conference to learn how to become independent. The conference wrapped up this afternoon.
Every year, approximately 350 youth age out of the Kansas foster care system. While most of these youth have experienced the guidance of effective foster parents, they still often must navigate their young adult years alone.
The Kansas Youth Advisory Council (KYAC) works with the foster care system to encourage youth to succeed in high school, and to equip them for life as young adults. Its biggest event, the KYAC Summer Conference, takes place each July, at Washburn University. More than 80 older youth who are either currently in foster care, or who recently aged out of the system, gathered at the college this week. KYAC is an advisory group, sponsored by the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF).
First Lady Mary Brownback welcomed the youth to the conference at noon, on Wednesday and recognized those in attendance who recently graduated either from college or high school. She also shared her enthusiasm for the HOPE Mentoring program for older youth in foster care, which was recently launched by DCF.
Workshops and speakers were interspersed by games and activities during the three-day conference. The youth received books from two of the speakers, national experts on foster care Travis Lloyd and Derek Clark.
Numerous youth in college and living on their own shared their insights with those still in high school, providing a meaningful source of inspiration to those still in care.
“I like being able to talk to other kids who have been in a similar situation as me, and to get to share my story as well,” said Mercedes Chesney, who is about to begin her second year at Butler County Community College. “I’ve been out of foster care for a year now, but it’s really helpful to hear from others who have been through the same thing.”
DCF sponsors KYAC and underwrites the summer conference. While it is always DCF’s goal to place youth in foster care in a home that will provide support and guidance past high school, it is also dedicated to helping youth without a strong family support system to succeed.
“A lot of these kids don’t know what opportunities are offered to them, so this conference helps them take advantage of the programs and benefits at their disposal” said Andrew Bly, a KVC Family Support Worker from Kansas City. “It also connects them to people who are in their corner as they age out of the foster care system.”
Youth were trained in filing income taxes, leasing apartments, interviewing for jobs, completing college and scholarship applications, cooking and sewing.
Those aging out of the system were also presented several tools for use when they are on their own, including a small microwave, an electric cooking appliance and a sewing kit.
“We are trying to prepare the students for as many different things as possible that they will face once they are no longer in the foster care system,” DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said. “But we also want them to see that they won’t be left alone once they turn 18. DCF has in place many supports to help them succeed for several years past that point.”
Students continue attending the KYAC conference well into their 20s. They learn about help available to youth formerly in foster care, including financial support for post-secondary education, education and training vouchers, grant funds for securing an apartment and furniture and for vehicle repair, funds for clothing/uniforms for a job, and medical coverage until the youth turns 26.
DCF provided information about, and encouraged the youth to participate in, the HOPE Mentoring program. First Lady Brownback said that everyone can benefit from a mentor when it comes to navigating transitions in life. She said she is excited to mentor a youth herself and is excited to see the program grow.