Four University of North Texas students stood in front of members of the Denton Rotary Club during a regular meeting at El Chaparral Grill on Thursday. Three of the students held black garbage bags, and the fourth held a plastic shopping bag.
This is how the student group PUSH — Persevere UNTil Success Happens — begins community presentations, while adviser Brenda Sweeten explains the group’s purpose, to support students who have lived in foster care and help youths currently in foster care realize that they can go to college.
At the restaurant, the students went into the crowd and each picked one person, who had to place their belongings in the bags and head to the front of the room. Sweeten told the group not to worry about what was in the bag, or what they left at the table, because she would take care of it.
This is what is told to youths who are removed from their homes or foster homes, Sweeten said. Someone tells the child not to worry about what is left behind, and that they will find the child a new family.
“What happens to youth in foster care is they get taken away — and they get taken away with very little notice sometimes — and it’s very traumatic for them,” she said. “And not only do we take them away from their families, but we take all of their stuff.
“When we take their stuff, it’s usually put in a black garbage bag. There is very little dignity involved in that process.”
Each of the four students then spoke to the club about their experiences in foster care and at UNT, during one of many community speaking engagements they’ve presented since the club was founded last year.
Sweeten, a project coodinator in UNT’s rehabilitation, social work and addictions department, started the group after she realized that students who lived in foster care typically don’t have support systems to help them through college — if they get there at all.
She saw the need after she went to contact a UNT student who had been in foster care to speak on a panel for a child welfare conference, Sweeten said. The student had potential, scoring 1400 out of 1600 on her SATs, but Sweeten learned that just a few months after enrolling, she had dropped out.
“I just felt this profound sadness because I knew this woman had such wonderful potential, and I knew it wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the classes she was taking. There was more to it,” she said.
Sweeten and a handful of students founded the organization with the idea that the students would help youths in the child welfare system realize their potential to go to college, and let them know there is a support system at UNT. They also decided to get involved with the community and child advocacy conferences and groups, to share their stories and provide hope to others, Sweeten said.
“It’s very rewarding, in a sense, to be able to speak about my story,” said Jackie Davis, vice president of PUSH. “To me, it brings healing to my life by empowering others, and I know that perhaps me telling my story will leave a trail of hope in people’s hearts.”
At the meeting, Davis said he had been in six foster homes before he was adopted at age 5 by a family who neglected and abused him before he went back into the system. He was rotated around and continuously abused until he was 13, when one foster family convinced a Child Protective Services employee to adopt him, he said.
The story is one club members can relate to, though not all were adopted. With their background of trauma, getting through college is increasingly difficult because many lack emotional support, which the group provides, members said.
An advocacy program to support the students is also in the early stages at the university, Sweeten said. It should help provide the academic support that foster care alumni also need. In several departments throughout the university, including housing or financial services, there are appointed “campus champions” to help PUSH students and streamline the problem-solving process.
“We know these students come with a lot of challenges and barriers, and sometimes they’re tired of fighting and sometimes giving up is really easy,” Sweeten said. “So we want to make sure if they have a challenge, we can meet that challenge with a solution through the program.”
Becky Greenhagen, one of the founding members of PUSH who will graduate in December, described the group as a lifeline.
Through the program, she has found her home on campus, accomplished her goals of speaking publicly about her story and already found a job.
Greenhagen aged out of the system without ever getting adopted, and now she is helping kids who are in the position she was in more than 10 years ago by working as a life skills specialist for youths in foster care, teaching them how to live on their own.
“We’re always told that we’re supposed to be a statistic — you’re going to prison, you’re going to wind up on drugs ... that’s what’s supposed to happen to us,” she said. “We are the ones that aren’t the statistic.”
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.