An initiative at UW-Eau Claire will give “welcome baskets” to incoming freshmen this fall who are homeless or exiting foster care, and is accepting community donations for the project.
It’s the first step for Fostering Success, a new program aimed at supporting UW-Eau Claire students who are former foster youth or who don’t have a place to live.
There are about 50 incoming UW-Eau Claire students this fall who identify as homeless or former foster youth, said Angie Swenson-Holzinger, a UW-Eau Claire member of Fostering Success and associate director of the Advising, Retention and Career Center.
“We’re trying to put together a laundry basket — because that’s very practical — filled with all the things they need to make their room comfortable and be successful in their first semester,” Swenson-Holzinger said.
The group’s goal is $6,000, since each welcome basket costs about $120, Swenson-Holzinger said. People can donate financially or drop off items at the Campus Pantry.
The project started when two separate parties — a group of UW-Eau Claire faculty and staff and first-year student Taz Smith — found a common goal.
A growing problem
Smith, a first-generation college student and native of Indiana, saw her parents struggle with addiction and entered the foster care system at 14.
“Growing up, I didn’t necessarily have role models,” Smith said. “I just had people I didn’t want to be like.”
Smith wanted to create a program that would support her, and other students like her, during their college careers.
Meanwhile, several faculty and staff members in the university’s Leadership Fellows Cohort were workshopping a project aimed at the same students, Swenson-Holzinger said.
“UW-Stout has had a similar program to Fostering Success for about five years. Here at UW-Eau Claire we were inspired by that,” Swenson-Holzinger said.
The Leadership Fellows, along with Smith, created an advisory board to steer efforts, including 27 staff members, faculty and community members.
“It’s kind of growing as people learn about it,” Swenson-Holzinger said. “More folks are coming to the table.”
Their first project? Collecting items that homeless or ex-foster youth might not have when they enter college: shower supplies, toiletries, towels, laundry detergent, paper towels and more.
The biggest hurdle for homeless or former foster students is their finances, Smith said.
“We’re independent students, unless we choose to give financial aid our parents’ information,” Smith said. “Which means that the funds are there, but they’re really hard to find.”
In Smith’s senior year of high school in Green Bay, she filled out over 60 scholarship applications. She eventually received three awards, all from UW-Eau Claire, she said.
“I didn’t want to take out any loans, because I’m an independent student,” Smith remembered. “I wouldn’t have anyone to lean on if I needed a couple extra bucks.”
Smith eventually paid for her freshman year of college without taking out a loan, and hopes to do the same for her next year of studies.
While the university can identify incoming freshmen who are homeless or leaving foster care by including a question on the federal student aid application, finding current students who are struggling is harder — and the number of homeless and ex-foster students is growing, Swenson-Holzinger said.
“In 2018 there were 50 students on campus who likely would quality for the (Fostering Success) program,” she said. “Back in the 2012-2013 academic year, there were only 28.”
Nationally, less than 10 percent of former foster children earn a bachelor’s degree, despite 84% of 17- to 18-year-old foster youth saying they want to attend college, according to a national coalition dedicated to foster system research.
“There’s a big gap between the success of former foster students and those outside the foster system,” Swenson-Holzinger said.
That’s where recruitment comes in: Smith hopes more experienced UW-Eau Claire students in Fostering Success will mentor incoming freshmen with the same background.
Smith’s long-term plan, however, is to take the program back to Green Bay schools, where she graduated.
“Eventually, I feel like every college should have this,” Smith said. “Those who donate, their money’s going to someone. Someone appreciates it so much.”
Fostering Success is collecting donations at the Campus Harvest/Campus Closet, room 49 of Brewer Hall, 131 Garfield Ave. The closet’s summer hours are 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. People should label their donations for Fostering Success.
People can also donate financially, since the college can buy items in bulk, Swenson-Holzinger said.
Financial donations can be given through the UW-Eau Claire Foundation online at uwec.ly/fosteringsuccess, through the mail (UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Schofield Hall 214, 105 Garfield Ave., Eau Claire, WI 54701) or in person at the Foundation office, Schofield Hall, 105 Garfield Ave., room 214.