As of 2019, it was estimated that 424,000 children are in foster care every day in the United States. On average, foster care children spend one and a half years in the system, and most, on average, enter the system when they are around eight years old. Furthermore, approximately 20,000 young people a year are aged out of the foster care system at 18 without a permanent family. And, one out of every five of those young people doesn’t have a home to go to. Without a permanent family system to support them, research shows that many of these former foster youths experience unemployment, incarceration, and frequently homelessness as they reach adulthood. In fact, 40% of people currently experiencing homelessness were once in the foster care system.
It is a sad realization that when young adults need help the most, they are left out in the world to make a life for themselves. At 18, when most children are aging out of the system, the majority of youth in the United States are still attending high school, planning for college, and are still very dependent on both emotional and financial support from their parents or other guardians. By the time most of these young adults are finishing college and are getting ready to enter the work scene, only half of the former foster youths of the same age are finding steady employment. The same percentage are also developing a substance abuse problem.
Higher education is often one of the best ways to help facilitate a better life for these former foster care youth and keep them from becoming an unfortunate statistic. Not only does it give them a purpose and potentially a place to live for a few more years, it puts them on the path toward gaining stable, well-paying employment. Yet, there are still some hurdles that foster care youth encounter in school that often prevent them from reaching college graduation or even higher education at all. For example, only about 50% of children in foster care finish high school. Most of these statistics stem from having less stability than other children. Those that do pursue a degree are often met with the challenges of financial resources, mentorship, support, stability, and guidance. With these obstacles, less than 3% of foster youth graduate from college.
How Together We Rise Helps Foster Youth Rise Above
Because of these startling foster care statistics, and personal experiences with the foster care system and foster youth, many organizations have formed in the last few decades to help support these children while in the system, as well as once they age out and seek out post-secondary education and careers. Together We Rise is one of these organizations.
Founded in 2008 by Danny Mendoza who was trying all he could to help his nine-year-old cousin in foster care, Together We Rise is a non-profit organization with a mission to improve the lives of youth navigating through the foster care system. The organization works with hundreds of volunteers, foster agencies, social workers, CASA advocates, and other partners in order to reach children in a multitude of ways, all over the country. Like Mendoza, many of these volunteers and staff are people who cannot be foster parents but want to do as much good as possible for these often neglected children.
Together We Rise’s programs are curated to bring the most guidance, dignity, and meaningful impact to the foster care youth. Many foster youths travel from home to home and are only given a trash bag to carry their belongings. The Sweet Cases program provides foster care children with a duffle full of helpful essentials while also having room to fit their belongings if they were to move again. The Building Bikes program provides bicycles to children and teenagers, while the Build a Board program offers youth skateboards for both fun and transportation. As many children in the foster care system are often overlooked on their birthdays, the Birthday Box program sends a special birthday gift to foster youth to celebrate their special day.
While all of the programs are incredibly meaningful, some have a greater, long-term impact than others. For example, Together We Rise hosts reunification events at some of the most fun and magical places in the country to connect foster care siblings who have been separated. These events create lasting memories and help siblings continue a bond that the system may not be able to facilitate. And, for children who have been adopted, the organization offers free photography in order to capture the key moments with their new forever family. Yet, one program arguably offers the most in terms of opportunity for children in the foster care system: the Family Fellowship. This program offers life-changing support that is funded and supported by philanthropists Hope Dworaczyk Smith and Robert F. Smith.
Overview of the Family Fellowship Program
Support begins with family, so emphasizes Together We Rise. That is why they started the Family Fellowship program. This program is scholarship-based and dedicated to aiding foster care youths through financial assistance and family-like emotional support as they tackle higher education. Each year, ten former foster children between the ages of 17 and 23 are chosen for the program. They are given up to $12,000 in scholarship funds every year for as many as five years to alleviate some of the financial burdens of post-secondary education. Aside from the scholarship money that helps with tuition, books, and tutors, the program also offers housing, including during summer and winter breaks, professional development to help with career-building, and a loving, family atmosphere.
Program materials note, “The vision of the Family Fellowship is to change the legacy of aged-out foster youth by transforming the way foster youth are supported through their college journey. Our program emphasizes the need to innovate, explore, and discover new ways to develop our young individuals for a modern workforce.”
The Birth of the Program
Before the Family Fellowship existed, Together We Rise was fundraising $300,000 to support its programs and was $8,000 shy of reaching its goal. Hope Smith called looking to donate to the organization, and after hearing how much was left of their goal, she donated the final $8,000. Together We Rise was shocked by Hope’s generosity and was even more surprised when she called back again looking to donate more. In honor of Hope and her husband’s upcoming wedding, Hope asked if she could have all of her guests donate to the organization in lieu of presents. The Smiths had even committed to matching the guests’ gift amounts up to $1 million.
After the wedding, the Smiths invited employees and volunteers from Together We Rise out to their ranch in Colorado during the Fourth of July weekend. Their mission was to discuss developing a new program catered towards sending young adults from the foster care system to college. This was a cause near and dear to the Smiths. Growing up, Hope knew many children in the foster care system, and both Smiths had seen how education can truly uplift someone’s life.
However, they didn’t want to create a program that simply sent students to college. They wanted to ensure that the children also had a place to relax and connect during the winter and summer breaks when the dorms were closed. Robert F. Smith saw firsthand when he was attending college the importance of having an affordable destination during the winter. His college roommate, he learned, while the dorms closed for winter break, had slept in his car because he could not afford to fly home. To meet this often overlooked need, the Smiths began the Family Fellowship program and converted a four-room cabin into a 20-room cabin on their Colorado ranch in order to accommodate the program’s students over the winter months.
Launching the Family Fellowship
The Family Fellowship program was launched in the Fall of 2015 after receiving financial assistance from Fund II Foundation, of which Robert F. Smith is founding director and President, alongside support and direction from both Smiths. That year, the Smiths invited 10 finalist students to lunch in Malibu, California to discuss their interviews for the program. During the lunch, stories were shared about how the students persevered through their hardest times in the foster care system. When the lunch was over, the students were given the surprise of a lifetime. Instead of another hurdle to go through, all of the students had already been accepted into the inaugural Family Fellowship program and would receive, not only scholarship support for up to five years, but also the technological tools to succeed throughout college, as well as the emotional support and a family structure to turn to for help. To celebrate, the students were taken to Disneyland for the day, where they vowed to make the most of their gifts and support each other.
Each year, students are still honored and excited to receive a place in the Family Fellowship.
“This opportunity to earn an education means everything to me,” stated a recent Fellow. “The best weekend of my life is still the weekend that I found out I was selected for the Family Fellowship scholarship. I hadn’t known until that day how much the problem of paying for college had weighed on me. Until you said the words that would change my college experience for the better. So I now get to attend college with so many of my initial worries gone and knowing that I will graduate with a bachelor’s degree either debt-free or with very little debt, and that means the world to me.”
The Powerful Legacy of Creating a Family Fellowship
“We are a family together. We are stronger together. Help each other in those downtimes. Celebrate each other in those up times,” said Robert F. Smith at one of the many Fellow luncheons. This idea of creating a family is a key component of the Family Fellowship. While the Fellows receive all of the financial tools they need to succeed in college, including tuition and academic supplies, it’s often the family and emotional support that means the most to these students. That is why Hope and Robert F. Smith offer genuine and continued support to all of these students, which includes coordinating trips and celebrations that will last a lifetime and fuel this sense of family.
For example, every Christmas season, the Fellows are whisked away to the carefully prepared cabin on the Smith’s Colorado ranch, where they are treated to a plethora of exciting winter activities like snowmobiling, hiking, and of course opening presents. One of the highlights of the winter trips is visiting the Smith’s clubhouse, where the students are taught how to make gumbo by Robert F. Smith. The night often ends with karaoke and board games. This warm, family atmosphere helps the students develop life-long bonds with the other Fellows and gives them the support they need to continue to tackle their education.
“My favorite part of hanging out with Together We Rise is definitely the winter trips,” said Mikayla, a former Fellow. “This is my third time I have been out, and I have just enjoyed it so much every time. I look forward to this every year, and it just has been a really great time. I love hanging out with my family.”
While the winter trip is often the highlight of the yearly trips planned by the Smiths and/or the Family Fellowship program, other trips and events, past the initial luncheon, have occurred to help celebrate the successes of the students and foster this sense of family. When the program received its first 100% graduation rate, Hope and Robert F. Smith, with Together We Rise, threw a graduation celebration to honor all of the students, known as a gratitude weekend. Special performers, such as Kayne West, were in attendance to celebrate the achievements of these college students.
Applications Open for 2022 Fellows
Through the years, the Fellows have shared their own feelings about receiving the scholarship from the Family Fellowship program.
“Odds were placed in our way, but we overcame them. All of a sudden, college is like not a far-fetched possibility. It is a thing that I can actually obtain. It is something that is such a blessing,” noted one Fellow.
Others have noted how the support from the program has truly made a difference in their lives, beyond just paying for college.
“I never imagined that I, the child of people with barely a high school education, would be attending college for free. And yet, here I am and thriving, if I may add. My support system has gotten me through the roughest of times. From threats of homelessness to even hearing the words ‘no’ and ‘you’re aiming too high,’ I have faced many obstacles. Regardless of my circumstances, I have always had someone to lean on not only for words of encouragement but also for the truth when I’m being stubborn,” said another student and Family Fellowship recipient.
These words from former Fellows are some that employees and volunteers of Together We Rise have heard many times over. Before the program, the students were fearing an uncertain future with little to no support. With the Family Fellowship, students feel cared for and heard, while also feeling the motivation to make the most of their lives.
If you or someone you know might benefit from the Family Fellowship, applications for Fall 2022 are now open until May 27, 2022. Like with the previous years, 10 students between the ages of 17-23 will be chosen. Some of the other qualifications for the program include:
- Being a high school senior or recent graduate with a 2.5 GPA or higher
- Having been accepted into an accredited, Pell-eligible college or another post-secondary school
- Having been in the foster care system in the United States
Fellows chosen will receive a scholarship of up to $12,000 a year for up to five years, housing, academic supplies, and more, including the yearly trips.