For children raised in foster care, the hope for them to carve out a better life is near improbable. Out of the 480,000 foster youth in the US, only 2-3% will graduate a four-year school.
Amiah Sheppard, however, managed to defy to odds and fell into the small percentage of foster care youth who is excelling in life after recently graduating from Barnard College of Columbia University with a major in sociology.
But the road to a brighter future has been fair from easy.
The 21-year-old was placed in foster care at the age of 3 after her parents became unable to look after her. Her grandmother was appointed her guardian.
“Having my grandmother as my guardian was the best option for not only me, but also my family, ” Amiah explains. “My parents, young and unstable at the time, simply could not provide for me; and, thankfully, my extended family stepped up and took care of me. Until my sophomore year of high school, my father was in prison where he died. My mother has always been actively involved in my life, I just didn’t live with her.”
She continues: “I have 1 brother, Travone (31), who also was raised by my grandmother. We have a relationship and we make it a point to keep in contact.”
As to whether her mother feels guilty for being unable to raise her, Amiah admits she does.
“My mother has always been a part of my life; our relationship has definitely evolved, however. When I was younger, our relationship was a lot more challenging for me to accept as it was very unstable and tumultuous while also being exciting and entertaining. My mother’s lifestyle was not for a child and although she did feel a lot of guilt towards herself, I often assure her that ultimately I am OK and I simultaneously feel her influence along with all the women that raised me.
“My grandmother and I have an evolving relationship and college has definitely strained it; however, I love my grandmother very much and she’s an inspiration.”
Growing up in foster care became such a normal existence for Amiah, she didn’t realize that most kids actually have homes with their biological parents that they go to every night.
“A memorable moment I had while in foster care was when I went to a summer sleep away camp in high school with an LA non-profit for foster children,” she explains. “Due to my unique situation, I had never really realized that I was in foster care. But when I went to that camp where I knew no one, I realized that I was different and the severity of what that really meant. I had overheard a girl talking about her life in a group home and how it didn’t have a lot of resources. While we both were in foster care – she was having a very different and more difficult experience than I was. My experience, however, became really hard when I “aged out” of the system at 21. This was during my last undergraduate year at an Ivy League University, and all of a sudden, all my financial support was cut off.
“For 3 years prior, I was able to keep my dignity as a low-income, first-generation, former foster youth student due to the resources that were availed to me because of my status as a former foster youth. But, as I entered my last year of my undergraduate career, I no longer had the government supplementing my life as a former foster youth living independently. One of the worst moments for me, but also one of my brightest moments, was when I finally had to reach out to my Ready to Succeed coaches, Romi & Pat, to save me. I had been drowning – not under the stress of the immense workload of being a full-time student – but under the stress of being a student with 3 jobs struggling to pay for food, transportation, books, and winter clothes.
“Thankfully, Ready to Succeed and other counselors and mentors helped to save me. Learning and not being afraid to reach out were my bright moments and they will help me to continue to shine. No matter what, there are ways to find help and resources to help you be your best self. It hasn’t been easy, but using my resources and actively and persistently looking for them has been invaluable to me.”
“The hardest thing emotionally for me is knowing that everything is all on me at the end of the day. Yes, I am very blessed to have a lot of resources; but, those resources are not my family and often, that hurts me a lot. Since I went to college I have basically been on my own. And now, after finishing, I’m still on my own. I wish my family could offer me financial support, but that’s not an option. This is upsetting – but also humbling and inspiring.”
Amiah found solace and support with Ready to Succeed (RTSLA ), a non-profit organization based in L.A. that was started in January, 2016 by Romi Lassally and Patrick McCabe, both former business executives.
Every year, 22,000 foster youth across the nation (and 4,000 in California alone) “age out” of the foster care system. They are left to transition to young adulthood completely on their own, without the support or connections they need to succeed. 25 % will experience homelessness. RTSLA bridges the gap between education and meaningful careers for transition-age foster youth currently attending or recently graduated from four year colleges, providing them with the professional development training, resources and people they need to become self-reliant and successful adults. But while they provide resources, opportunities and access, what RTSLA really provides to these deserving students is hope and the chance to pursue their dreams. They become the family and support system that every young adult should have in their lives, but that these kids, by no fault of their own, lack.
“Ready to Succeed LA was born out of a clear need to help foster students from LA County who were on track to receive a college degree, or had already graduated, ” Patrick explains. “There are many ‘College Access’ programs and not that many ‘College Stayedness’/Career Success programs for underserved youth, especially foster youth. ‘”
He continues: “A vast majority of transition age foster youth will experience homelessness. Our own students are terrified of the same. This is why we have started a ‘Bridge Fund’ to bridge the financial gaps they are forced to deal with – and that can derail them during and after school, before they find their first jobs. While we want them living independently as soon as possible, they really aren’t equipped and still need support. Even kids with supportive families rely on them for some kind of emotional, financial or physical support until they are 26. Our students are forced to be on their own between 18-21. So we get them job ready through our Career Accelerator and Internship program. And we use the Bridge Fund to help the students cover anything above and beyond tuition – from test prep, to interview clothes, to first and lasts months rent for an apartment.'”
Currently, RTSLA has 70 transition age foster youth currently attending or recently graduated from four- year schools.
Amiah is one of those.
“Ready to Succeed has provided me with the means to succeed—access and opportunity,” she says. “The work that they do is important in that they act as connectors who make really meaningful matches. They facilitate partnerships between students like me and mentors who offer their industry expertise and more importantly open their own networks to us. RTS also has relationships with so many companies with exciting opportunities. I have been the lucky recipient of these services and introductions. I’ve had two incredible internships and met mentors in LA and NY who have been so generous with their time and resources.”
And now, Amiah is about to enter a 10-month Masters in Arts of Management program at Wake Forests’ Business School, with plans to pursue a career in Business Development or Investor Relations.
“I have a lot of dreams and aspirations, but I honestly can only strive for stability as this moment so my career path will reflect that,” she says.
Amiah is one of RTSLA’s success stories, but there are others.
“Perhaps my favorite story has to do with a tremendous young college student we were able to place in a major financial company last summer.” Patrick recalls. “She ended up earning more money than she ever had, but more importantly, she was exposed to, and fell in love with, a career in the financial services industry that she didn’t think would be within her reach. This year, she leveraged last summer’s experience into another great internship at an LA based wealth management firm.”
Patrick implores the public to understand that “the decks are clearly stacked in a million ways against foster youth. They need all the possible support all of us can provide.”
And Pat’s partner, Romi, adds, “All foster youth need and deserve support long after they age out of the system. When most kids rely on their parents for some sort of support until they are 26, how can we expect these kids, who have the added challenges of trauma and abuse, to make it on their own? If we want these kid to defy the odds – and more importantly, start changing the odds – we need to move the finish line many years past college acceptance. If we don’t, we’re abandoning these kids all over again.”
As for Amiah, she tells others who are or were in the same situation as she was, to not give up hope.”You’re OK,” she says. “I am proud of what I’ve achieved and I’m thankful that I’ve been blessed and privileged with all of the opportunities I have been allowed and worked hard for while I also know this is just the beginning and I’m excited for the crazy, unexpected, and challenging journey that is life.”
And what does Kindness & Hope mean to her?”
“Kindness & Hope means to me that humanity is the common thread that brings us all together and we all deserve dignity,” she says. “And honestly those that have money, even a little to spare, I hope that theses stories inspire them to feel some attachment to any cause or issue and give money to them because money helps give those causes and issues the things they need to continue. This helps the cycle of change—though difficult, there are organizations such as Ready to Succeed and Success in Degrees for example that do this work and continuously need money to service the many kids who need them. “