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Former foster kids find sanctuary of support at Sierra

Program provides school supplies, books
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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After spending years moving from place to place when he was a kid, James Weems knew he wanted a better future for himself and his family.

Weems, 23, is a sophomore at Sierra College studying psychology. When he was younger, Weems spent three years in the care of foster families, but constantly moving around was part of his life in Citrus Heights even before that.

That's why he started attending Sierra College.

"Growing up I moved around a lot, during K through 12 I went to a lot of different schools because my mom couldn't keep up with the rent, so I knew I didn't want to be in the same situation," Weems said.

Weems is one of around 250 students at Sierra College who formerly lived in the care of foster families.

Sonbol Aliabadi, executive director of the Sierra College Foundation, said 100 students received backpacks full of school supplies like notebooks, flash drives and scientific calculators this year. The packs also include hygiene essentials, like shampoo, soap and toothpaste.

Sierra College and the foundation partner with community organizations and residents to make helping former foster youths possible.

Sierra also provides students who were formerly in foster care with a $200 voucher for textbooks.

Weems said having that little bit of extra money in the beginning of the school year can make a big difference.

"Part of being a productive student is the other side, where you take a few hours and relax and get yourself back together," he said. "It's not much, but it's enough extra money to go get a piece of pizza with your friends on the weekend and experience college like a college student instead of always struggling."

The effort to help students like Weems started in 2007 with the College Transitional Support Team and has grown every year since, Aliabadi said. Under a grant from the City of Roseville the project was able to take off and since then has gained community support from 22 different businesses, organizations and residents.

Students who became ineligible for foster care at 18 would show up to Sierra with a trash bag of their belongings and nothing else, which still happens, according to Denise Nichols-Telford, student services technician in the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services office.

"The reason we all work so hard is because this is something we still see," Nichols-Telford said.

Around 75 to 100 former foster youths register with Sierra College every year, according to a press release by the college. Since the effort to help students who were formerly under foster care started, Aliabadi said the retention rate for those students has risen from 20 percent to 80 percent.

She added that when those students drop out, they usually become homeless because they have no where else to go.

"This minimal support has gone a long way in helping them accept and understand that there is someone out there that cares for them," Aliabadi said. "These backpacks aren't only filled with items, they're filled with love."

Many former foster youths qualify for Pell grants to cover the cost of tuition and this year Soroptimist International of Loomis Basin and an anonymous donor have provided five rooms with 10 beds in the Sierra College dorms. It usually costs $3,350 per semester to live on campus.

Jerome Jackson, 19, is a former foster youth from Oakland, and has dreams of becoming an electrical engineer. He said he was able to save money by being provided with school supplies and books his first year.

That first amount saved would eventually lead to Jackson being able to buy a car.

"I was planning on spending all this money on books, but then it ended up helping me a lot," Jackson said.

Refurbished laptops are also provided to some of the students and the Sun City Roseville Needle Arts Quilting and Knitting Club has handmade donated quilts and pillowcases to the students.

While the books, laptops, supplies, and all of the tangible help has been a lifesaver for Kiarra Brown, 18, the emotional support from counselors and staff at Sierra College have been just as important as she studies psychology and nursing. Brown was in foster care for four years in Washington.

"I like having someone here to vent to sometimes because I came here by myself. I don't have any family here," Brown said.

A law that was recently passed, AB 12, extends support to former foster youth up to age 23, but they have to meet criteria to receive that support, like showing they are a full-time student and have a high school diploma.

Weems, Jackson and Brown are all employed by Sierra College. Brown works in the Office for International Students and Weems and Jackson work in the Financial Aid office.

"It's nice because when I was in middle school I would tell people I was in foster care and it felt like there was a separation. They were always calling their biological parents ‘mom and dad' and I was calling people by their first name," Jackson said. "Here, I feel like that separation isn't there anymore, people understand my differences and want to help."

Contact Amber Marra at amberm@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.