Program helps at-risk Va. foster teens stay in college, pursue careers

Rick Wagner • Updated Nov 2, 2017 at 5:56 PM
ABINGDON — A gasoline gift card, a food gift card or money for car repairs might sound like minor things for most college students.

However, for already at-risk foster teenagers in Southwest Virginia trying to make it through college and beyond, things like these can be the difference between moving into a career or dropping out of school.

As the Great Expectations program, launched by the Virginia Community College System in 2008 to help foster teens, approaches its 10th anniversary, officials from three community colleges, program coaches, students and graduates gathered Wednesday afternoon at the historic Martha Washington Inn & Spa to celebrate the program’s results.

“Our students are really the VIPs for the day,” said Jennifer Sager Gentry, vice chancellor of the VCCS and executive director of the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education. The basic goal of the program, according to Director Rachel Strawn, is to have students complete degrees and obtain jobs.

Great Expectations by the numbers

— Of 23 community colleges across the commonwealth, Strawn said, 21 have active Great Expectations programs, with the goal being to have them in all 23 schools.

— More than 450 at-risk foster teens have earned certificates, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and/or entered the workforce since the program began, and five are seeking master’s degrees, Strawn said.

— Of an estimated 5,000 people eligible for the program in Virginia, about 1,400 are enrolled. Strawn said the goal is to increase that number to 2,500.

— However, in Southwest Virginia, the enrollment rate is already about 50 percent of eligible folks, she said.

— At Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Great Expectations coach Kari Paschetto said the program served 51 students in high school and college and nine earned a credential last school year.

— At Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands, coach Jennifer Roark said that of 95 students served, more than 50 are enrolled and 12 earned a credential last year.

— And at Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon, coach Ben King said the program serves 65 students, with 31 enrolled in credit classes and three seeking bachelor’s degrees. One of those is set to graduate in December. Nine earned a credential last year, King said, and 16, the largest group so far, could do so this year.

What do the coaches and program do?

“I don’t really know where I’d be right now” without the program, said Jasmine Reisler of VHCC, adding that she is not in contact with her parents or foster parents.

David Mata, of the same school, didn’t get involved in Great Expectations nearly until graduation, although he had heard of it in high school. Mata said he reached out late in the degree process for help with textbooks and math.

“He (King) made it happen for me,” said Mata, now a full-time manager of a McDonald’s, where he helps mentor foster children who work there, and a part-time security guard for Emory & Henry College.

King said Mata, who is seeking a career in law enforcement, will begin police academy training in January.

At MECC, coach Paschetto said participants are helping with Operation Christmas Child, which sends shoeboxes with gifts to children around the world, as well as taking trips. Destinations can include Biltmore and Washington, D.C.

MECC first-year student Skye Mullins, who is seeking a general studies degree, said the program has greatly helped her. She hopes to earn a counseling or psychology degree at Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky.

VHCC graduate Mandy Lane and J.R. Stump are the first couple to be in the program. She earned a criminal justice degree and is now seeking a phlebotomy degree, while Stump is pursuing a welding certificate.

“I couldn’t do it without Great Expectations,” Stump said.

Chris Gail, a transfer to VHCC from Emory & Henry, has passed her certified nursing assistant state board and is finishing up her medical assistant and phlebotomy degrees while working toward an associate’s degree in general studies.

“As a single parent, I need all the safety net I can, especially since my foster parents are out of state,” Gail said.