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Under a bright blue sky, six young people, ages 13 to 17, and two counselors circled around a rainbow-colored parachute lying flat on the grass on the University of Wisconsin-Stout campus.
The teenagers, in foster care or group homes, were participating recently in the university's first Fostering Success summer overnight camp.
They spent a night in a residence hall and learned about UW-Stout and the possibility of attending someday. Before the serious business of learning the ins and outs of college prep, the group engaged in some fun activities.
First, the teens were encouraged to fully commit to the camp experience. Led by Adam Ludwig, a residence hall manager, they were asked to engage with their heads, lead with their shoulders, jump in with their knees and be ready to go with their toes. Ludwig then transitioned to a full-throated sing-along of "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes."
Most participants did not know each other, so the next activity revealed information about them. They each had to come up with a name to describe themselves and a body motion. Ludwig started with an upraised fist proclaiming himself as Awesome Adam. Around the circle each student had to repeat the names and body motions of the others and add their own until all had learned and repeated everyone's name.
The circle included Creative Cally, Grateful Greta (counselor), Sassy Savannah, Joyful Jenny, Willing William and Nonchalant Nate.
Matt, graduate student in clinical mental health counseling and a resident counselor at Positive Alternatives in Menomonie, had come with two of his teens. He laughed and enjoyed watching his kids interact with the others.
The next 24 hours were packed with information and more fun. The teens heard from representatives in Admissions, Financial Aid office, ASPIRE-Student Support Services and administrators in the Fostering Success program. They also went bowling and saw a movie.
Importance of college preparation for foster youth
Pam Holsinger-Fuchs, director of Admissions, said it's important to inform all young people but especially those in foster care of the opportunities available.
"There are great scholarships and grants for foster youth, but if students don't learn about them in middle school and high school, they may get discouraged, see college as unattainable and feel less motivated to focus on academics," she said.
She hopes that coming to campus and learning about the offerings will motivate the young people to plan so when the time comes they are college-ready. The program also will hold day camps Oct. 11 and Oct. 28 for middle school students in foster care.
A study by the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, University of Chicago, revealed that many foster youth approach adulthood with significant educational deficits. Only 6.3 percent of Wisconsin foster youth attended a college or university fair and 2.3 percent received SAT preparation by age 22, the study found.
Fostering Success, including the summer camp, is a step toward leveling the playing field for Wisconsin's foster youth, said Holsinger-Fuchs. Teens set concrete goals to make their future look brighter than their past. "We wanted them to leave feeling empowered," Holsinger-Fuchs said.
On the exit survey, one of the participants stated, "When we all got together I realized I wasn't the only one with problems and that I need to change my attitude about my past."
In the spring the university received a grant through the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families to fund the program. For the fall semester the program has three freshmen and at least two upper classmen.
Greta Munns, foster care liaison
Greta Munns — Grateful Greta — is pleased the university is extending support to foster care youth and foster care alumni.
Munns, an alumna of UW-Stout and of foster care herself, is the part-time liaison for the program.
UW-Stout is a great school for foster care alumni because it provides important services, such as a laptop, textbook rental and tutoring services, Munns said.
Munns recruited the teens for the overnight camp and has contacted local businesses for help. Aussie's Dry Clean Press & Laundromat in Menomonie has agreed to donate free services to incoming freshmen who are foster care alumni for one year and also has secured donations for the program from Walmart and Kwik Trip.
She is working on a possible mentor/student matching program.
Becoming an advocate for foster youth
Munns became an advocate from experience, not only her own but by interning with foster care organizations in 2009 and 2010 when she was in college.
Also in 2009, she testified at a congressional Ways and Means Committee hearing in Washington D.C., concerning the impact of the Fostering Connections Act of 2008 on low-income, transitioning college students.
Munns presented the keynote address at the 2014 high school graduation party for foster care youth at the governor's mansion in Madison. It was hosted by Gov. Scott Walker. She encouraged her audience to look at their scars as something beautiful because they indicate survival.
"I had a lot of wounds when I entered foster care at 15. And I say wounds; not scars, because they hadn't healed yet." Suffering from depression and self-injury, she didn't know "what to do with all the pain from my wounds," she said in her address.
Munns received the support and care she needed, and the wounds gradually healed. That journey is "a huge part of what makes me whole, and I feel so fortunate," she said.
After she graduated from high school, she received a $5,000 scholarship from the state Department of Children and Family Services and attended UW-Stout, majoring in art education. "Art is a good way to connect with others; it is an instant equalizer," she said.
Munns taught K-8 art for one year in Chicago at Piccolo School of Excellence, where most students lived below the poverty level, she said. She has since moved to Eau Claire and is happier than she thought was possible. Six months ago she became the mother of twins, a boy and a girl.
To support Fostering Success, refer here.
Adam Ludwig, a residence hall manager, leads an activity at the Fostering Success overnight camp held at UW-Stout. The precollege camp was for teens from foster homes and group homes.
A rainbow-colored parachute is used during one of the Fostering Success camp activities.
Greta Munns works with teens at the Fostering Success overnight camp at UW-Stout.