Turning 18 can be an exciting milestone for teens, but for those in foster care it's a number they dread.
An 18th birthday to them means they are no longer a ward of the state. The 70 percent who don't have their high school diplomas or GEDS are often thrust into adulthood ill equipped.
But a Fort Myers-based nonprofit is trying to offer young women in foster care a chance at success.
Footsteps to the Future, which helps young women transition out of foster care, has developed a new mentoring program that pairs at-risk teens with mentors who will push them to graduate, while also guiding them into adulthood.
"Education is the passport out of poverty," said Judi Woods, founder and executive director of Footsteps. "Without education they're not ready to get a good job, not ready to raise a family, and are going to be dependent."
A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States, found there are more than 800,000 kids who spend time in foster care each year.
Fifty percent of them will fall prey to crime, drugs, or alcohol abuse, unwanted pregnancies and homelessness, according to the report. Only 30 percent have their diplomas or GEDs by the time they turn 18. Twenty-five percent of them become homeless within three years of leaving the system and 70 percent of the nation's prison population has spent some time in foster care
"We saw that and said, 'something's wrong here. What can we do to make a difference?'" Woods said.
The Footsteps to the Future mentoring program is looking for mentors for 12 girls who are under 18. The mentors will need to commit to a minimum of 14 hours per month for two years.
There are also six girls who have "aged-out" and are actively working toward earning their diplomas or GEDs and need mentors as well.
A component of the new mentoring program is tutoring services, so the girls are given the tools needed to ensure they are academically successful. Woods said they hope to expand the program as they raise more money.
The time commitment from mentors isn't demanding, but the emotional and practical support can be, said Angela Bishop, 36, a single mother with a full-time job.
Bishop chose to be a mentor, despite her lack of free time, because she says it's her "mission in life to help young mothers." Bishop was a teen mother herself.
Woods said many of the women in Footsteps are young mothers.
"I just know that it's a tough road and how challenging it is," Bishop said. "I met several people who uplifted me in a certain way and I want to lift the weight a little bit. In my heart I want to empower these young women to see their light, see how strong they can be and how successful they can become no matter what circumstance or statistic is placed on them."
Mentoring a 17-year-old from Footsteps is Bishop's first official position as a role model. She has helped young women on her own in the past.
Sandra Coyle, a teacher who put the academic achievement program together, said mentors like Bishop need to be available for the mentees by phone and in person.
"We're matching the girls with mentors who are going to be dedicated to really being their cheerleader in motivating them and helping them appreciate the value of their education," Coyle said.
More than graduating from high school, for Coyle, the program offers a chance at breaking the cycle of foster care. She said some girls at the program are third generation foster kids.
"What sparked this initiative ... is to instill in them the fact that you don't have to live on social services for the rest of your life," Coyle said. "If you get a good education, you can get a good job and can earn a good salary and really take care of yourself and have a family no one in your family has lived."