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Helen's Hope Chest, ASU work to ease college transition for former foster youth

Mesa nonprofit provides Target gift cards to help students with supplies; students pay it forward, make blankets for current foster kids

ASU students make blankets for foster children
August 11, 2018

Sheets, blankets, towels, laundry supplies, personal toiletries, maybe a bike and a printer — the cost of college life essentials can add up. For youth aging out of foster care who may not have any family support, the start-up costs of moving into a residence hall or an apartment can be a strain.

This fall at ASU, thanks to a fundraising effort from first-time community partner Helen's Hope Chest, former foster youth participating in University College's Bridging Success Early Start program received $250 Target gift cards to help ease their college transition.

On Saturday, Aug. 4, the first day of the weeklong early-start program, 17 students enjoyed a welcoming lunch, icebreaker activities to get to know one another and their peer mentors, a presentation on the science of resilience by College of Public Service and Community Solutions Vice Dean Cynthia Lietz, a lesson on college budgeting strategies and financial literacy, a laptop set-up session with executives from Tempe-based Insight (which has donated computers to all four cohorts of Bridging Success Early StartBridging Success Early Start is a program of ASU's University College aimed to help former foster youth successfully transition to campus life. Bridging Success, coordinated by ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions, supports students throughout their time at ASU.) and, after dinner, a group shopping trip to the Target store at Tempe Marketplace.

“I bought a microwave, a vacuum cleaner, organizers and school supplies,” said freshman elementary education major Maria Rubio.

Psychology freshman Colby Nelson said he spent a chunk on bedding.

Helen’s Hope ChestHelen’s Hope Chest is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and Qualifying Foster Charitable Organization that provides clothing, personal products, school supplies and more to foster youth. Executive Director Katie Pompay is excited about this new partnership with ASU: “Through the fundraising effort we’ve called Back to School Drive: College Edition, we’re able to offer the participants of Bridging Success Early Start a modest lifeline with the freedom to begin making important adult decisions and addressing their own personal needs.”  

Giving youth the freedom to make their own choices is a model that Helen’s Hope Chest follows even with its youngest clients. It serves 600-800 children in foster and kinshipKinship care refers to a situation in which a grandparent or other extended family member is raising a child. care every month, giving them a chance to secure new and like-new clothing, books, toys and other basic items in a boutique environment. They reach about 3,000 children over the holidays and have recently launched Foster 360, a program to help teach independent-living skills to kids aging out of care.

“Our mission has always been to create an inviting space where kids are able to make their own selections and decisions. We believe this model helps them regain a sense of self-confidence and begin the process of enjoying a healthy childhood,” explained Pompay. “Our new college initiative is merely an extension of that mission.

“When I started college, my aunt and uncle set me up with a gift card at the university bookstore, and I know how much that helped me,” she added. “We want to reduce the economic barriers that can play a determining factor in whether someone chooses to pursue, or persist in, college.”

The roots of the ASU-Helen’s Hope Chest partnership were planted at the May 2017 Mesa United Way campaign luncheon, where Jared Vibbert, assistant to University College Dean Duane Roen and co-chair of the college’s United Way efforts, met Pompay.

“Jared introduced the ASU Bridging Success team to Katie, who invited us to come out and tour Helen’s Hope Chest. We were impressed and found we were very much on the same page in terms of wanting to support college readiness,” said Jeanne Hanrahan, director of community outreach for University College and the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “Soon after, John Zielonka [community outreach coordinator for Helen’s Hope Chest] got in touch about their interest in doing some fundraising to help support our college-transition program for foster youth.” 

“Arizona’s foster-care tuition waiver, along with the efforts of ASU’s Bridging Success staff, has made higher education a reality for nearly 100 current and former foster youth since the policy’s implementation,”  Zielonka said about the group's motivation for getting involved. “But for those who have spent their teenage years in foster-care group homes or regularly between living arrangements, it is still often uniquely difficult to obtain other necessary supplies not covered by scholarships or waivers. We don’t want this to be the reason these kids choose not to attend college if they otherwise have a desire to go.”

The Bridging Success Early Start team was absolutely delighted when Helen’s Hope Chest came back with the news this summer that it would be able to offer the Target gift cards.

“The gift cards offer great flexibility to meet the individual needs of our students,” Hanrahan said. “Whether they're living in a residence hall or are already set up in an apartment but could use a bike or groceries or whatever during the year — the funds don’t have to be spent all at once.” 

Paying it forward

By Tuesday afternoon, the Bridging Success Early Start students were already paying it forward, participating in a volunteer effort to make fleece blankets for Helen’s Hope Chest to share with kids who are first-time clients.

Pompay and Zielonka dropped by the classrooms-turned-crafting-studios at ASU's Tempe campus, where the rooms were looking very much like a scene from a “Project Runway” team challenge. Pompay and Zielonka had both gone with the Bridging Success Early Start students to the shopping outing on Saturday. They wanted to thank the students in person for making the blankets and see how their first week as Sun Devils was going.

As the crafting session was winding down, Zielonka asked the students if anyone would be interested in talking about their college-going journey on video, to be shared with other foster youth who might be thinking about higher education. A number of hands immediately shot up.     

Jesus Ledezma, a freshman majoring in health-care compliance and regulations in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation, said he decided his first year of high school that he wanted to go to college, so he worked at getting good grades while juggling a job to help support himself and his siblings.

“Don’t take your future lightly while in high school. Have fun, but also do the academics and get involved,” he said. “Take advantage of all the resources and systems in place in the foster-care system to help you. … Bridging Success Early Start has raised my confidence.”

Crafting partners Dominic Watson, an engineering major, and Michaela Martin, a biological sciences major, shared that they were excited about starting college and being out on their own.

“Whatever you’ve been through in your life, you’re smart enough to do this. You have the power to make a path for yourself,” said Martin, who added that at one point in life she never thought college would be a reality for her because of the cost.

Watson was in and out of different houses during high school and had an unstable educational experience.

“That unstable situation was motivation for me to get out and be successful," he said. "I can be what I want to be and have a stable life. There’s really no such thing as ‘smart people.’ There are just people who work harder for what they want.”

“You guys are the future,” Pompay told some of the students who, as they folded up the colorful no-sew blankets, again thanked her for the gift cards. “Investing in you is more important than just about anything I can think of."

Top photo: ASU health-care compliance and regulations freshman Jesus Ledezma trims a strip of fleece as he and elementary education freshman Maria Rubio make a blanket for foster children served by Helen's Hope Chest. The students are part of Bridging Success Early Start, an ASU transition program for first-year students who were involved in foster programs. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now