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Merlene Davis: Gift cards can make a big difference in the life of a foster child

Had my husband and I withdrawn financial support for our three children when they reached the age of 18, I can assure you they would have had a difficult time surviving.

But that lack of support is exactly what awaits teens in foster care who turn 18, unless they decide to go to college.

So I have two reasons for writing this column:

■ I'd like you to help the non-profit Fostering Goodwill organization put gift cards into the hands of those teens who are continuing their educations.

■ And I'd like to get the word out to those teens who have aged out of the system that there is help with tuition if they choose to go back to school.

Arionne White, 23, had been a ward of the state from the age of 3. She looked forward to turning 18 so she could be free to make her own decisions.

"I aged out and said I was done," White said. "I said, 'I don't want to be in foster care anymore.' Being in foster care is not always the happiest time in your life.

"That lasted about three months," she said, laughing.

She needed help, and she got it.

When she recommitted to the state, she received tuition assistance to attend a community college, and she received a check to cover rent and utilities.

"That is a benefit that follows me forever," White, now the mother of a 3-year-old son, said of her education.

The opportunity to get a higher education is a godsend, and so are the gift cards she has received from Fostering Goodwill this time of year.

"The cards are not a whole lot of money," she said. "They are just a reminder that you are not by yourself.

"I've had a lot of Christmases where I wasn't going to get anything," White said, "but I knew I was going to get one of those cards. It says someone still cares."

The gift cards — which are sent to young adults ages 18 to 23 — are a part of Christmas Wishes, one of several Fostering Goodwill programs to help Fayette County youth making the transition to independence.

Fostering Goodwill was started four years ago by social workers Jeff Culver and Earl Washington to ease that transition. Last year, they gave out 212 gift cards, Culver said. They've given out 500 in three years, most of them about $20 each.

Children in foster care who are nearing the age of emancipation — about 600 youth statewide — can choose to remain under state care while attending school and receive health insurance, a tuition waiver to any state public college or university, plus have their rent and utilities paid, and receive gift cards for food and other items twice a month.

Those who age out and stay on their own while attending school can receive a tuition waiver and $415 a month.

Those attending a trade school such as barber or beauty college would receive the monthly stipend only.

To help those young people know what programs are available, Culver and Washington are hosting a Community Resource Fair, which will feature information about financial aid, trade schools and other resources.

"We are really proud of what we have done," Culver said. "There's not much recognition given for these older kids. Sometimes they just disappear."

There will be food, games, awards and door prizes, including a big-screen TV. The donated gift cards will be given away then.

Because some of the youth are at school in other parts of the state, the cards will be mailed to them.

The fair will be at Carver Community Center, 522 Patterson Street, from 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 17.

"I never got Christmas presents once I aged out of the system," said Washington, who was in foster care for 10 years. "That's one reason we started this program."

It's just another way to level the playing field for foster children like James Cooper, who entered foster care at age 9 and has aged out. Cooper said he graduated high school, went to the National Guard and is studying art at the University of Kentucky.

He heard about the opportunity to go to school through Culver.

"When you age out, the ball has been dropped," Cooper said. "You don't really learn the skills that you need to be independent while you're in foster care.

"Just knowing there are people out there who care and who help and support you to be an independent young person is key to your success. It motivates you to be your best."

If you'd like to donate a gift card or money for a gift card, send it to Fostering Goodwill, P.O. Box 54561, Lexington, Ky., 40555. For more information, call Culver at (502) 741-9527 or Washington at (859) 509-4307.