Preparing to Age Out of Foster Care

herish Thomas pulled out a $20 bill and asked a young person to crumble, fold and stomp on it. Then she asked the group of more than 30 youth she was speaking to if they would still want the bill.

"You may have been stomped on, thrown out and not cared for, but you still have value," said Thomas, a 24 year old who shared her experiences as a former foster care child at a recent conference for young adults who will age out of the foster care system this year.

The Preparing for Today's Job Market conference was held at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield. It was sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.'s Pi Tau Omega Chapter and Pi Delta Chapters, both of Southfield, Theta Lamba Omega Chapter of Pontiac, and the Michigan Department of Human Services of Oakland County. This conference's focus on youth aging out of foster care is a part of Alpha Kappa Alpha's service theme of Global Leadership Through Timeless Service.

Thomas was one of three panelists who spoke to the youth at the conference. She spent her formative years in the foster care systems of Michigan and Georgia. During that time, she attended 15 different schools, including of public, private and alternative schools. Before aging out of foster care, Thomas resided in more than 20 placements in seven states around the country.

Determined to have a stable, productive life, Thomas was granted a full scholarship and earned her bachelor's degree in sociology and African-American Studies from the University of Michigan in 2009. She went on to receive a master's degree in social work degree from the same university at the age of 23. Thomas currently works as a full-time social worker supporting youth and families in Detroit.


She also volunteers as a personal mentor to teen women to help them find their worth, turn away from the streets and turn to education. A motivational speaker, her story has been featured in the Detroit Free Press, Kalamazoo Gazette and The Huffington Post. She is also the president and CEO of started Cherish Our Youth, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit she founded to support youth and young adults.

Danita Echols, another panelist at the conference, recalls that family members and foster care guardians told she would "never amount to anything." She experienced multiple placements in foster homes, group homes and the Wayne County Juvenile Detention facility. During her 11-year odyssey in the foster care system, Danita Echols attended a dozen public schools before graduation. Prior to and between placements, her dysfunctional family life consisted of poverty, neglect, emotional abuse and domestic violence.

Echols went on to co-author the book "Growing Up in the Care of Strangers: The Experiences, Insights and Recommendations of Eleven Former Foster Kids." She earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in social work and has worked in the foster care system for the past 16 years. Echols is currently a Michigan Department of Human Services human resources developer and a trainer in the department's Child Welfare Training Institute. She has shared her knowledge about foster care with the Michigan legislature, community panels, faith based groups and foster care organizations.

The third panelist, Reco Spencer, is the oldest of 22 siblings. He is searching for 14 of his siblings, all placed in different homes. He gave this advice: "Don't fear the unexpected. You have already been through the worst.

"Open yourself up to love. It took me a long time to open up," Spencer said. "Take control of your life based on how you want your life to turn out."

A member of a gang at the age of 12, Spencer dealt drugs as a young boy. He saw two murders and knew he had to choose a different avenue if he wanted to survive.

Spencer realized a lifelong dream of attending the University of Michigan. He received degrees in criminal justice and business management. A motivational speaker, he inspires youth across the country.

Statistics indicate that youth who age out of foster care are more likely to be homeless, incarcerated and live below the poverty level. The three panelists demonstrate that each individual can change the course of his or her life.

The conference kicked off with the youth taking career assessments. They had the opportunity to speak with representatives from licensed vocational and technical schools. And they attended workshops on the tuition incentive programs, completing job applications, resume writing, social media networking, etiquette for job seekers and human trafficking.

Says Miriam Blanks-Smart, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha's Pi Tau Omega Chapter, "This conference was undertaken by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority as we endeavor to make a difference in the lives of underserved youths as they age out of the state's foster care system."

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