Ebony Frye, 23, had been in foster care for six years, mostly in Louisville, before aging out at age 18.
On her own in 2009, she enrolled in Jefferson Community and Technical College, seeking to work toward a degree in social work.
The desire to reunite with her family in Lexington grew stronger after she turned 18. She decided to move back here, leaving school behind.
The move proved difficult emotionally and was financially costly.
Frye had to repay student loans that she had received as well as a penalty for dropping out.
"I paid my loans back with my income tax returns," she said. "But there was another $1,600 I owed for not finishing the semester."
On the salary of a day-care worker, that amount might as well have been $1 million. Plus, she wanted to return to school, this time at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, until it was paid.
Accumulated debt after dropping out of college is a problem for many youth who have left foster care, said Jeff Culver, co-founder of Fostering Goodwill, an organization that assists aging-out foster youth as they transition to independent living. "A lot of them are seeing their families again and dealing with issues from the past," Culver said.
When they can re-focus, the unpaid debt bars their re-entry to a higher education.
To help remove that obstacle, Fostering Goodwill has started the Second Chance Scholarship, which can be used to pay off the debt. Frye is the first recipient of that scholarship.
The money, however, isn't just handed over.
Culver said a certain number of hours in college have to be completed and a couple of years have to pass. "A lot of our kids mature later," Culver said.
Some of the former foster youth are not as prepared for the level of responsibility required to attend college. Many have been victims of abuse and have had to overcome that and being separated from their families and communities. Then they must transition into adulthood with limited positive support aside from state social workers.
Statistics show that these youth are more likely to become homeless or incarcerated, face unemployment and lack health care, become parents at an early age and be undereducated.
Each scholarship applicant has to write an essay about what is different in his or her life now, he said. And applicants have to pay some of the delinquent account themselves. The organization wants to help those who are ready to focus on school work again.
"The word is getting around," he said. "These kids are getting excited about it. They have been worried with paying rent, buying food and taking care of their kids."
Paying off the school debt brings them hope, he said.
It certainly does for Frye.
"I work in day care, and I want to own my own day care one day," she said. She plans to study business administration at BCTC.
Although she has heard horror tales from other foster care youth, Frye said her experience wasn't as bad. She had regular visits in Louisville with her father and mother in Lexington.
To finance the scholarship, Fostering Goodwill is hosting its second annual Run for Independence 5K race on Oct. 19 at Commonwealth Stadium. All proceeds from the race and all donations will go to the scholarship.
Runners can sign up early or on the day of the race. For $20, people like me, who aren't going to run, can sponsor a youth for the race. Or we can just make a donation.
Last year, Culver said, the race raised $5,000, some of which was used to buy gift cards for youth who are seeking food, some for bus passes for their transportation and some for mothers struggling to support their children.
"This year, all of it will go to the scholarship," Culver said.
IF YOU GO
Run for Independence 5K race
What: Second annual race to support Fostering Goodwill, an organization that assists aging-out foster youth as they transition to independent living.
When: registration begins 8 a.m. Oct. 19; race begins 9 a.m.
Where: Commonwealth Stadium, 1540 University Dr.
Registration: $20 until Oct. 11; $15 students with valid ID; $25 race day.
Information: Fosteringgoodwill.org and on Facebook.