KINGSTON, R.I. – August 8, 2012 – They improved their math skills, learned how to make compelling videos, trained with experts in nonviolence and prepared delicious, healthy food with a University of Rhode Island chef.
But more importantly, 20 Rhode Island foster children learned to believe in themselves and in their dreams to pursue a college education.
The youngsters, most of whom will be high school freshmen in the fall, thank their teachers, mentors and friends in the First Star Academy at the University of Rhode Island for their transformation during the four-week program sponsored primarily by Hasbro Inc. With additional support from Identity Theft 911, Adoption Rhode Island and the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, the program was offered for the first time this summer at URI’s Kingston Campus.
Hasbro, which backed the original program at UCLA, asked URI to run the second such program in the country. URI President David M. Dooley didn’t hesitate to get URI on board.
“Foster kids nationally only get four-year degrees at a rate of about 3 percent, which is significantly less than any other student population,” said Thomas R. Dougan, URI vice president for Student Affairs, who offered to administer the program. “I have met some of the students. They are wonderful, wonderful children. I have read some of their stories and they are amazing.”
He said his staff has gained new insights about issues faced by foster children. “We have enjoyed them immensely, and we hope to grow the program from 20 students to 120 students over time.”
While learning to have confidence, developing concrete skills and earning three college credits, the tight knit group went on field trips, ice skated at the Boss Ice Arena and hung out at the Hope Commons dining center or at their home away from home in a new URI fraternity house.
Katie and her fellow Academy peers are glad the program came together.
Initially reticent about going to the Academy and doing homework in the summer, Katie quickly grew to love the program.
She acknowledged that anger, fueled by some difficult childhood experiences, has been an issue for her, but the Academy helped her confront it.
“There was always someone to talk to about it, and they always helped me calm down,” Katie said. “(The Academy) has shown me that my history does not affect my future.”
One of the central parts of the program required the students to make their own videos. Some were commercials, some were about the students’ lives and one addressed sportsmanship. Instructors and student mentors from the Harrington School of Communication and Media led that part of the program.
Katie, who smiled throughout her interview and who was filled with energy, did not know how to create a video when she arrived at URI.
In the last week, Katie’s group produced a music video about what it’s like to be a foster child, including stories about abuse. “So the music video was kind of showing other people what it’s like to be abused your whole life and always having to hide it and being threatened with being hurt if you tell.
“This is a really powerful program and it shows you that foster kids are different than what people think,” Katie said. “There’s a stereotype, and that’s not what we are. We are so much more than the stereotype. You just have to get to know us.”
The director of the program, Matt Buchanan, a URI alumnus and former guidance counselor, said he wanted to come back to the campus because URI and its Talent Development Program played a key role in shaping him.
“Having an opportunity to help guide them to college, I have truly been blessed,” Buchanan said. “We complain about things that are not important. Oh, it’s too hot. It’s raining. I need a coffee. These kids have had tragedy after tragedy, from losing both parents, to losing siblings, and they wake up every day smiling, being respectful, wanting to be here.”
Initially, Mike was only interested in the program because his aunt told him he would get a free laptop.
“I thought I was going be in school 24/7, but we were in school 5 to 6 hours, like you normally are. Then we would go to the house, to lunch, to dinner, and we would be involved in activities.
“I am really comfortable here. When I leave it’s going to be tough,” Mike said, adding that he formed deep friendships with other members of the group. “We’re like this now,” he said folding his hands together. “We already talked about hanging out after the program.”
His main goal is to enter the military as a Marine then work in collision repair. College is a possibility too.
“In school, in the ninth grade, I was bad. When I came here, the teachers all talked to me and helped me. It kind of got to me,” Mike said. “Since I am going into the 10th grade, I have to mature. Being bad last year wasn’t worth it because I almost stayed back. When I think about it at night or when I am in class, doing my work, I wonder why I couldn’t be like this last year.”
Mike said the most empowering moment of the whole process came when he was accepted.
“Before this program, me and my dad did not have close contact, but my aunt called him to tell him I got accepted. So he called me and said, ‘I am proud of you. Don’t fail this.’ He apologized for not being there when I was a kid. So I was like, wow.
“That’s the main reason I am not acting up in the program, because I don’t want to let my dad down. I haven’t seen him in a while, so when he called me, I was happy. I want to be able to call him when I get home and tell him, ‘Dad I made it through the program, I passed all my classes’.