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A promise of support to college-bound foster youth
foster story pic
CSU Stanislaus Promise Scholars student Terrance Ellis, 20, is a former foster youth who was emancipated from the foster care system and is now a star athlete, artist and musician at the university. Ellis is one of 40 Promise Scholars on campus. - photo by Photo Contributed

California State University, Stanislaus student Terrance Ellis recognizes he is blessed with the opportunity to attend college.

Ellis isn’t your average 20-year old — in more ways than you can count, but what makes him a remarkable human being isn’t that he is a college student, or his plethora of talent. It’s what he had to overcome to get there.

At CSU Stanislaus Ellis is standout track and cross country star, a remarkably talented art major and an accomplished musician who plays the guitar, piano, violin and didgeridoo. He is also a former foster youth who just five years ago was living on the streets.

The young man has never really had what would be called a stable home life. His father and mother have been in and out of his life and he is aware of at least 10 siblings who have also floated through the system. He has been reunited with his mother as a young teen, but that quickly fell apart and he was back in the system in less than a year.

It would be easy to see how Ellis could become a statistic — one of the 65 percent of emancipated foster youth who end up in poverty or incarcerated. But it’s those very statistics that motivate him.

“I hear all those statistics and with me being such a competitive person I just think to myself I know will beat those numbers. I don’t want to make those decisions that would even put me in a position to become a statistic like that, I don’t want to look back and say ‘what if,’” said Ellis.

One of the keys to success for Ellis is the Promise Scholars program at Stanislaus State. Promise Scholars provides personalized academic and social success for former foster youth attending the college.

For Ellis the program has been a true lifesaver. When he was still in high school at Stagg High in Stockton, his best friend went on a recruiting trip to CSU Stanislaus and that’s when Ellis met head track coach Diljeet Dosanjh Taylor, who helped get Ellis into school. Within days it was discovered he was a former foster youth and he was referred to Promise Scholars and program coordinator Wanda Bonnell.

Bonnell understands that former foster youth are often amongst the most at-risk students.

“I don’t know how I can reduce the number of kids in the foster system, but what I can do is help change the outcome of those kids,” she said.

While Bonnell herself is not a former foster youth, she understands their pain and feelings because she was not raised by her biological parents and later, when Bonnell’s grown daughter passed away, Bonnell was left to raise her small grandchildren.

Promise Scholars helps coordinate housing, grants, scholarships, tutoring services, health care, psychological counseling, and various support services for former foster youth students at CSU Stanislaus, as well as foster youth on the verge of emancipating from the system. The program launched in 2006, and ever since it has gained steam to give students a fighting chance in college.

The statistics for former foster youth at college is rough. Only 10 percent even make it to college and only 3 percent actually graduate.

“What is really telling is that over 70 percent of foster youth say they want to go to college but they don’t know who, where or how to go.  A lot of people don’t realize there are programs like this,” said Bonnell.

Currently, Promise Scholars has 40 students enrolled but Bonnell said there are more former foster youth on campus.

“Amongst some former foster youth there is a stigma to them and they don’t want to admit they were in the foster system. We have to change that culture and change the stigma. If more people knew that foster youth want to be successful then more people would be willing to help foster youth,” said Bonnell.

One of the other aspects of Promise Scholars is that it is part of a network of organizations and services dedicated to giving foster youth better opportunities in life. Last summer Promise Scholars student Latasha Hayes was awarded a nine-week internship with U.S. Senator John Kerry in Washington D.C. Hayes, now a senior majoring in criminal justice (with a minor in child development) called the experience unforgettable.

CSU Stanislaus is a partner in the Northern California University Foster Youth Consortium, which is dedicated to providing opportunities such as Hayes’ summer internship through various organizations.

With Promise Scholars leading the way, and students like Ellis and Hayes dedicated to a better life, hopefully the steep hill of statistics, stigmas and negativity will be erased.

“There are some really talented kids amongst our students, look at Terrance! They shouldn’t be defined by that they were foster kids once. They should be defined by what they overcame and we as a community need to help them,” said Bonnell.

In the coming months Bonnell will be starting a scholarship program for Promise Scholars students, known as 1,000 Angels. Look in the Turlock Journal for more information about that program in the future.

For more information on Promise scholars call 667-3957 or visit www.csustan/promisescholars/

To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail or call 634-9141, ext. 2015.