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For Foster Youths, Grants Fill the Education Gap

A federal program helps students between 14 and 21 make the transition to self-sufficiency.

June 28, 2004|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Lien Vong has battled family and tradition to pursue her dream of a college education.

But when that goal was threatened by a lack of money, she didn't falter. The 20-year-old Cal Poly Pomona student learned about financial aid designed for foster youths like herself who are trying to overcome tremendous odds to better their lives.

Awarded $5,000 from a new federal tuition program, Vong was able to attend summer school, pay for student housing and plan on starting her second year of college this September. Now she wants to make sure other foster youths take advantage of the aid before the funding expires.

"If I didn't have this grant, I would have to put much more hours into working than school," said Vong, who works as an assistant in the school's Office of Student Letters. "It's been a big help for me."

Since the late 1980s, the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program has been funding independent-living programs for people between 14 and 21 to help ease the transition from foster care to self-sufficiency.

Recently, the government expanded the program by creating the Chafee grant, allocating $44 million to provide foster youths with tuition and vouchers for post-secondary education.

In November, California was awarded about $8 million for the 2003-04 school year. But because the program didn't get underway until April, the state is scrambling to ensure that all the money is spoken for by fall. If not, the unused funds could revert to the federal government.

As of last week, 827 grants totaling $3.3 million had been awarded statewide, according to officials. An additional 1,000 youths have applied, said Carol Solov, a spokeswoman with the California Student Aid Commission.

"We have a bank of callers trying to reach applicants to see if they meet all of the criteria," Solov said. "We think we will be able to use all of the money, but we still need to let people know this program is available."

So far, 292 grant recipients are from Los Angeles County, 59 from Alameda County and 41 from Orange County.

The grants provide up to $5,000 per student for college or vocational training expenses such as tuition, books, clothing, transportation, computers, and room and board. Applicants must have been in foster care between their 16th and 18th birthdays and must be at least a part-time student with satisfactory academic progress.

There are about 91,000 children in foster care in California, 27,000 of them in Los Angeles County. They are far more likely than other youths to drop out of high school, engage in criminal activity, have out-of-wedlock babies and descend into homelessness, according to studies. Foster youths in their late teens are in an especially precarious position, and there is increasing awareness of their needs, officials say.

"If a compassionate society is judged by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us, it is hard to imagine anyone more vulnerable in society than youngsters who have aged out of foster care," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the Chafee program. "They don't have [anyone] who is going to pay for college expenses or to rely on for continuing, ongoing advice and counsel, or a home to move back into if they need to suddenly. The whole idea is to provide them with some supports."

Some colleges, such as Cal Poly Pomona, have been aggressive in telling students about the Chafee grants. The college already has 24 students in its 2-year-old Renaissance Scholars program for foster youths, which provides financial assistance, free tutorials and other services.

The school held a pizza party to entice students to apply for the Chafee program, and 10 students have been awarded grants, said coordinator Koji M. Uesugi.

Even though the program got a late start, Uesugi said, students have been able to use the money for summer studies that are especially helpful to foster youths.

"It makes a big difference, especially for those who don't have a home to return to after they emancipate," said Uesugi. "For them, the summer period is often the most difficult time to deal with. So they have been able to pay for summer housing at school."

That was the case for Vong, who is in a liberal-studies program she hopes will lead to a teaching degree. Vong, born in Vietnam, was separated from her parents at age 6 and came to the United State at age 8 with a younger sister.

She lived with her paternal grandmother and aunt, who were very traditional, she said.

"They wanted me to stay home and sew clothes," Vong said. "So I had to make a decision. If I wanted a future, I had to leave before it was too late."

An academic coordinator at her Pomona high school contacted the county's child protective services. At 17, Vong was placed in a foster home, where she stayed until she turned 18. She has been working and attending school ever since.

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