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Ex-foster teens at home for holidays in dorms

Susan Notes:

It is very difficult to
comment on this story except to wish these
young people well. . . and to be grateful for
those who are helping them.

by Marisa Schultz

KALAMAZOO -- Kicked out of his parents' home at
age 12, Michael Baker was forced to live on the
streets, finding shelter under a bridge.

After he entered the foster care system, Baker
lived with 36 different families and attended
11 high schools before earning his diploma and
aging out without being adopted.

The idea of home, a concept that's often
synonymous with the holidays, has eluded the
18-year-old for most of his life.

Until now.

He's found peace and hope during Christmastime
in an unlikely place: between the white
cinderblock walls of his 12-by-12-foot dorm
room at Western Michigan University.

"It's comfortable," said Baker, a freshman who
has adorned his room with lights and a
stocking. "This is my home. This is my new

Baker is one of 48 former foster care youths
receiving scholarships and comprehensive
support at Western Michigan through the new
John Seita Scholars Program. Many foster care
youths have suffered abuse and neglect, and 90
percent will never make it to college -- a
dismal statistic that prompted Western Michigan
to offer a lifeline for these students with
year-round needs.

Typically, the campus closes during the
holidays as its 25,000 students go home to
their families. But for the first time, Western
will leave one residence hall open during the
winter break for the former foster care

Staff members also have opened up their homes
to the students during breaks. An anonymous
donor has supplied money that will buy
groceries for the students, since the dining
halls are closed. Community members will cook
meals for the students after Christmas.

"With this being the first year, we are
learning what needs the students have," said
Yvonne A. Unrau, interim director of the
program. "And one of those needs is planning
for the holidays."

John Seita, the scholarship's namesake and a
former foster care youth, also invited students
to spend the holidays with his wife and
daughter. Many students have been noncommittal,
however. Baker, for example, is grateful for
the support but says he's choosing to be alone.

"When I was their age, I would have opted for
isolation," said Seita, an associate professor
at Michigan State University School of Social
Work. "It's adaptive and natural. When you see
everyone else having normal family situations,
you are hesitant to (be) an interloper in
someone's family."

As an undergraduate at Olivet College, Seita
had to sneak around the dorms during break and
steal food from the local grocery store to get
by. Friends invited him home for Christmas, but
"I didn't want to go," Seita said. "I didn't
want to feel different. ... When you've been
hurt a lot you tend to keep people at bay."

More than financial aid

In any given year, 800,000 youths nationally
are wards of the state, according to a study by
the National Association of Student Financial
Aid Administrators. About 300,000 of them are
college-aged; but just 10 percent actually
enroll. They face significant challenges --
from physical and mental health issues to life
skills, such as maintaining a bank account and
buying groceries, the report found.

So when Western launched its program, leaders
knew students would need more than just
financial aid.

Among Western's roles: mentorship, lining
students up with dorm supplies, help filling
out Medicaid forms, early career planning and
providing a listening ear when someone
struggles in class or deals with a breakup.

"These are not kids who get to come to college
and hang out for while," Unrau said. "These are
folks who have added stress in addition to
worrying about classes and how to study. They
are worried how they are going to pay for
(things) and finding health care and 'where am
I going to stay during break. After graduation,
do I have money for a security deposit for an
apartment?' These are students who will be
leaving campus without someone to co-sign a
loan for them. They have many more barriers
than others their age."

Western anticipated 15 kids the first year, but
51 arrived in September. Three left early --
two for medical reasons and one joined the
Navy, Unrau said. The campus has opened its
hearts and minds to these students, Unrau said.

Nicole Ayers, an Oxford High School graduate,
said the transition to college was difficult at
first, but she's grateful for the other Seita

"I'm friends with a lot of them. I also just
stay on my own sometimes," said Ayers, who
joined Western's ROTC. "(They've) really helped
a lot. There are similar things that happened
to them ... and you have someone to talk to you
about it."

Past is hard to shake

Baker says he's not sure where he'd be without
the Seita Scholars program. Maybe homeless,
maybe back under a bridge.

Baker said his family disowned him when he
realized at young age he was gay. Being
homeless makes you grow up quickly and, though
he doesn't talk about it much, the past is hard
to shake.

He's sometimes haunted by flashbacks of abuse.
The smell of bleach is one trigger, reminding
him of when his stepmother used to pour it down
his throat in the basement, he said. His
roommate lets him know in advance if he's
cleaning so Baker stays away from the dorm a

Baker doesn't advertise that he was in foster
care. He wants to fit in. Yet, little things
can irk him -- like when kids say they hate
their annoying parents.

"But if they only knew," Baker said. "...It
could have been worse."

For as tumultuous as his past has been, Baker
has an energetic spirit and is passionate about
the campus color guard. And for the first time,
Baker says he can relax. He now has Medicaid,
his living situation is stable; he works part
time, has financial support and has met many
good people. He's said he has much to be
thankful for during the holidays.

"It's not where you've been, it's where you're
going," Baker said. "I live by this quote."

— Marisa Schultz
Detroit News



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