Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kentucky Youth Connects and Kentucky Organization for Foster Youth

For former foster kids, there's help out there
Davis, Merlene. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 26, 2008.

Stefanie Burnett, 24, has spent 10 years in foster care and lived in six placements.

But don't feel sorry for her.

"It made me who I am and it has definitely given me a lot of will and strength," Burnett said.

Had she not endured the ups and downs, the good placements and not-so-good ones, "I don't think I would be the person I am today," she said.

Who she is is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky in her last year of a master's degree in merchandising and textiles.

And she wants other young people who have aged out of the foster care system to understand that they can do the same thing and more.

Burnett is a regional youth coordinator for KYneX, or Kentucky Youth Connects a mentoring and networking program throughout the state that teaches current and former foster youth how to survive on their own.

The program matches the youth with people who can help them apply for subsistence money, teach them how to balance a checkbook, build a resume or get utilities turned on, she said.

"We have a really strong support network," Burnett said. "They can voice their concerns here and get that off their chests. It is hard to find a place where everyone will understand what is going on."

George Duvall, state KYneX coordinator, said support is invaluable to a foster youth. Four out of 10 homeless people have been in foster care, he said.

KYneX targets youths who are 15 to 23. They don't have to be students in college or technical school to benefit.

A sister program, Kentucky Organization for Foster Youth, or KOFFY, allows young people to travel the state gathering information about the foster-care experiences of other children. They then act as intermediaries between foster youth and lawmakers to effect change.

Burnett said she was allowed to stay with her last foster family until she graduated from high school, even though she had turned 18. She then left to attend summer school at UK.

Not all foster youth are granted that option or even want it, Duvall said. Once they reach 18, he said, some "burn bridges with workers or with foster families and don't have anywhere to turn to."

Duvall said more people need to know about the program. "We want to get the word out there to people who work in foster and adoptive care. We have something not only for in-care, but as they age out."

For example, there is money available to pay college tuition, fees and housing allotments for former foster children.

In Lexington, the program serves about 350 people a year. There are similar programs on each college campus in Kentucky except for Kentucky State University, which is served by the Lexington program, and the University of Louisville, where the city has a support network.

Plus, Duvall said, there will be an annual conference June 6 to 8 for foster youth and former foster youth and their adult supporters at Western Kentucky University. It will celebrate the program's fifth anniversary.

"Everything is absolutely free," he said. "We feed you, educate you and have fun."

Each participant must have an adult supporter or have one assigned to them.

To attend the state conference, call Duvall at (859) 257-4094 or e-mail him at gduvall@uky.edu

Burnett thinks it will be well worth your time.

She said she was 19 when she received a call nearly five years ago inviting her to attend a meeting. She has been part of the program ever since.

"I was immediately intrigued by what I could do to give back," she said. "Just because I had left foster care didn't mean I had to put it in my past.

"It's all about benefiting the foster youth of Kentucky."

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