Kimberleigh Thomas knows from experience how hard it is to move forward after aging out of foster care.
“I didn't know what I wanted to do at 18,” Thomas said. “At 18, I wanted to be free -- but how to support myself, I didn't know how to do that.”
Thomas was living in a group home then. She'd been in four foster homes since she was 16 years old. Now she's pursuing an associate’s degree in social work at Wake Tech Community College.
“Then, I'm hoping to get my master's and be a social worker and help kids in the neighborhoods, and try to help them overcome the statistics,” Thomas said.
That's something she's trying to do too - to beat the odds.
The number of young adults who age out of the foster care system in North Carolina without being adopted is on the rise, and they face many barriers to completing higher education. Less than 3 percent of young adults aging out of foster care finish college.
Thomas isn't doing it on her own. At age 22, she joined a program at Wake Tech called Fostering Bright Futures. Michelle Blackmon is the program's coordinator.
“I consider myself the mom of the program,” Blackmon said.
Blackmon helps the students with registration, academic advising and financial aid, but her job also goes far beyond academics. Through the program’s funding, she has also helped students find secure housing, make car repairs and pay for childcare.
“If they lose housing, if they don't have transportation, academics is the last thing on their mind,” Blackmon explained. “So my goal, and my job is to make sure that those things are not what they have to focus on.”
That means helping all 30 students with the kind of things families might help their college student with when they're in a pinch. And at the holidays, it also means a party with presents. It's another way Blackmon and the program help students feel supported.
Thomas was overwhelmed by the small mountain of gifts she received through donors – including grocery store gift cards, a new coat, cash for her to take a weekend trip and a set of colored pencils and sketchpads. Even as an adult, she had never received presents like that before.
“It feels good for somebody to pay attention to you and make you feel special,” Thomas said. “That's what Michelle does not just for me but for everybody here, and I couldn't ask for anything more than that.”
Wake Tech is the only community college in the state that has a program like this. So far, it's helped 10 students finish their degrees.
Follow Liz Schlemmer on Twitter @LSchlemmerWUNC