By Jayme Fraser
It probably didn’t look like Kei Forbis was paying attention. Her new friend Mykala Phillips was drawing vines, leaves and aliens on her arm as the morning’s keynote speakers shared tips on how to successfully transition out of the foster care system and into college.
But both Forbis and Phillips were listening, recognizing the emotion described in each speech. The two foster youths know it’s tough to “age-out” and live independently with little or no family to help them.
The best foster parents help teens set up their first bank accounts, teach them to balance a budget and take them to visit college campuses.
Not all do.
Shaping your future is tough, Forbis said, particularly without knowing who is left to ask for help.
That is why a handful of state and national programs teamed up to host a conference Monday through Thursday at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.
Foster youths ages 14 to 20 stay in the dorms and eat in the cafeteria to test drive college life as they learn about choices in higher education, resources to help them afford it, money management skills and the support available for the transition out of the foster care system.
Nearly 50 foster youths are attending the four-day event hosted by the Oregon Department of Human Services and the Oregon Student Assistance Commission. Another 20 youths registered for a one-day goal-setting program incorporated into the larger conference and organized by the nonprofit Searching for Hope.
But what many say is the conference’s most important goal isn’t printed on any schedule: making friends.
“It’s really important to meet other foster youths because they can be isolated, seeing other siblings come and go. They can feel really alone,” said Pamela Butler, a guest speaker and former foster youth who now works for the nonprofit Children First.
Forbis, who is attending for the third time, said the youths often “give each other hope.”
Each year she has met teens with “a tough streak” that are positive they’re destined for nowhere but prison. But she also has seen those teens open up after meeting people who understand what they’re going through.
The conference was a wake-up call for Forbis that her past does not have to direct her future. It’s a lesson she first saw embodied in her older sister, Malia, who helped organize the first conference. Now, she shares the message with everyone she meets.
“You don’t just end up in prison,” she said. “You have to really try to end up there.”
Forbis, 18, of Newberg said she’s putting her energy toward a better goal. She begins her first year at Chemeketa Community College this fall and plans to become an emergency medical technician.
“A lot of these kids don’t know they have a voice and can use it,” she said.
Sometimes the most important thing they can do is ask for help, Forbis said. At this conference, she said, dozens of people are ready to listen — now or months later on Facebook.