Ashley entered foster care at 12 years old. By 19, she had graduated from high school, but aged out of government care and any kinds of support she had known. After graduation, she added another minimum-wage job to the one she was already working. Six days a week she could be found in fast food restaurants, while volunteering a seventh day to get work experience.
Like many of her former classmates, Ashley dreamed of getting a post-secondary education so she could find a good-paying job and create a pathway to a stable life. But, unlike most of her schoolmates, she had to fend for herself without the help of parents – just like the approximately 700 youth who annually age out of foster care across BC. When youth age out of care, they are instantly expected to care for themselves and lose support from their foster parents, social workers and government programs.
“Life looked like struggling to stay above poverty,” 26-year-old Ashley says.
“Almost half of the 700 youth who will turn 19 and leave care this year will be on welfare within six months,” says Kim Winchell, Director, Social Impact, Community Impact and Investment at United Way of the Lower Mainland.
“Beyond the general lack of encouragement and guidance they receive at this crucial point in their lives, youth in care must also deal with a disproportionate gap in the financial support they receive, which is why so few even consider the path to higher education.”
Working and paying bills left Ashley with little time to figure out what she wanted to do. Without the support of immediate family – her grandfather and aunt would help her fix her car – she worried she might never get ahead. But she was determined.
On top of her work, she managed to fit in courses and figure out what she didn’t want to do. This continued for five years – during which time she completed a certificate course and became booking clerk at Surrey Memorial Hospital. There she discovered her passion: health care and helping vulnerable people.
Tuition help is not enough
Ashley’s tuition is covered by the BC Tuition Waiver Program for former youth in care. All 25 BC public post-secondary institutions participate in the program, which provides youth like Ashley with free tuition. The program is an extremely positive step in helping young people thrive, but it isn’t enough.
Living expenses – rent, food, books and transportation – while attending school remain a significant barrier to young people taking advantage of this opportunity. That’s because it costs up to $20,000 per year to cover basic living expenses while studying.
Basic living expenses covered
The Youth Futures Education Fund (Youth Futures or YFEF) helps cover these expenses for youth who have aged out of foster care, but are actively pursuing post-secondary education. And it is the support youth like Ashley need so they can focus on school… instead of worrying about where their next meal will come from.
Thanks to donations to the Fund, Ashley is completing a four-year Bachelors of Science in Nursing degree program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey.
“My life is much better. More peaceful,” Ashley says. She has used the funds provided to buy food, textbooks and school supplies. She no longer has to choose between working extra shifts to pay bills and sacrificing her grades.
“It’s reduced my financial burden so I’m more confident about pursuing my education,” Ashley says. “In five years, I see myself working as a community health nurse working with kids, young adults and youth.” Ashley is particularly interested in mental health and addictions.
“Post-secondary education plays an important role in helping a young person realize their true potential and establish a network of friends, colleagues and mentors,” Kim says. “It only seems right and just that all youth should have the same opportunities to pursue it.”
“Youth and former youth in care are our future. They are our most vulnerable…If we invest in them they can give back to the community and have a happier life,” Ashley says. “It’s important that they have the same opportunity to succeed in life as adults who do live at home with their families still.”
Help youth succeed by allowing them to focus on studying so they can thrive.