On May 21, Lillian strode proudly across the stage at Texas A&M University-San Antonio to accept her diploma — and with it, her bachelor’s degree in sociology.

College and high school graduations are important milestones for any young adult. But the occasion is even more meaningful for someone like Lillian, who grew up in foster care. This graduation season, we celebrate all the amazing children who have achieved what they once might not have believed was possible.

Against the Odds

It’s hard to overstate the value of a diploma, which opens doors to countless higher education and job opportunities. Unfortunately, a mere 3% of children in foster care nationwide earn a college degree, and only 50% finish high school. To help overcome these trends, Upbring provides educational support to the children in our care, from infancy through high school and beyond.

No one in Lillian’s biological family had graduated from college, but she wanted to try. With help from her foster parents, Kevin and Kelli Bueker, she took all the necessary steps to apply and enroll at Texas A&M.

Navigating the transition to college can be challenging for anyone — but especially so for children who have experienced trauma throughout their upbringing. Because she had “aged out” of foster care at 18, Lillian didn’t have the safety and stability she needed to focus on her coursework. She started failing her classes, to the point of losing her financial aid and her space in the campus dorm.

Looking for extra support, Lillian signed up for BeREAL, Upbring’s Supervised Independent Living program that helps youth successfully transition from foster care to self-sufficiency and independence through support, education planning and mentorship. (REAL stands for Ready, Educated, Accomplished, Leaders.) BeREAL coordinator LaNisha Bell provided Lillian with an apartment near campus, as well as a bed and a Walmart gift card to help her furnish the new place. Bell even helped Lillian move in — crucial support that made it possible for her to get back on track.

Along the way, they have gotten to know each other well. “Lillian knew that I was going to call or stop by and ask, ‘Is there anything you need? Is there anything I can do? Are you okay, how are you feeling?’ Now, she’s reciprocating and checking on me, and I appreciate that growth,” shared Bell about the emotional support she not only provided but received, too.

“BeREAL is a really good step to independence — but you still have people come in to check on you to make sure you’re alright,” Lillian explained. “LaNisha is amazing and very supportive of me.”

The day Lillian became a college graduate, Bell was there cheering her on, as were her younger brother, Brady, and the Buekers, who still play a positive role in her life. Now the 22-year-old hopes to head to graduate school for social work, so one day she can work with children in foster care.

“I’m so proud of Lillian,” said Bell. “She’s worked hard to be a college graduate. She’s living her dream and I’m happy to be a part of her story.”

Advocating for Education

While BeREAL is geared toward young adults who have left foster care, Trinity Charter Schools (TCS) provides educational services to the preteen and teenage girls at Upbring New Life Children’s Center, as well as children at other community shelters and residential treatment centers (RTCs) throughout Texas. Children who have experienced abuse, neglect, sex trafficking and other traumas often have negative associations with school — in part because they haven’t had consistent, appropriate support in the classroom or at home.

Changing that trajectory is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. When a child arrives at New Life or another TCS program, we assess their knowledge and skills while also tracking down academic transcripts, which could be scattered across multiple schools or districts if the child has lived with various biological family members or foster families. From there, we establish individualized learning plans to help each child catch up on school, if necessary, and to graduate from high school. We also involve them in setting personal and academic goals, so they can learn to become their own best advocate.

“We’re there to build up students’ confidence and show them all they are capable of,” said Keely Reynolds, Principal for TCS-Pegasus Residential Treatment Facility, who is slated to become TCS Superintendent on July 1.

Whatever students want from their future, Upbring and TCS are there to help make it happen, from identifying career interests and vocational opportunities, to taking the SAT or ACT and applying for colleges. (Did you know? Children who have received services from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services [DFPS] are eligible for free tuition at state supported colleges or universities.) And the support doesn’t stop once someone leaves one of our centers or shelters. Students often reach out for guidance, years later, as they settle into adulthood.

As Reynolds puts it: “When they walk out of our doors, they not only have a high school diploma, they have a lifelong family.”

A Steppingstone at New Life

In total, 21 children graduated high school through TCS this spring, including two girls at New Life. One was Beatrice*, who simultaneously completed New Life’s Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program, conducted in partnership with two generous donors who operate a nursing school in central Texas. The mix of remote and in-person instruction equipped Beatrice with the skills she needs to work as a CNA, which provides hands-on medical care to patients under the supervision of a Registered Nurse (RN). It can be a career in and of itself, or a great steppingstone to other roles in the health care field.

Anya* also earned her high school degree through New Life this year. Though she moved on from the program several months ago, TCS made it possible for her to complete her remaining credits online. She returned to the campus in Canyon Lake for the June 2 graduation ceremony, complete with caps and gowns and cake. This fall, Anya plans to attend Texas State University.

“This is a huge accomplishment, when you think about all these children have been through,” shared Dawn Rogers, Principal of the TCS Central Texas Region, which includes New Life. “Our kids are so resilient.”

The Next Chapter

Those hard-earned degrees unlock a world of opportunity for the children in our care. In this way, education paves the way for lifelong success. “No one can take your education from you,” Rogers added. “It’s the one thing that can change not only your life, but the generations that come afterward.”

*While Beatrice and Anya’s stories are true, we have used pseudonyms and stock photos to protect their privacy.

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