ORONO, Maine — Their plans for the summer sound deceptively ordinary. Summer camp. Driver’s education. Fishing. Visiting family.
But for many of the 60 or so teenagers who attended the 21st annual Teen Conference for Youth in Care at the University of Maine on Wednesday, the coming year marks the approach of a critical milestone. When these displaced youngsters turn 18, many of them will “age out” of Maine’s foster care system. That means they will find themselves abruptly without the financial, material and emotional support of the state as they navigate into adulthood — a tricky enough transition for more fortunate young adults who have the full support of concerned parents, extended families and engaged communities.
The annual conference aims to prepare teens for the transition to independence, to encourage them to continue their educations, and to solicit their advocacy on behalf of others in the system. The conference this year was organized by the Youth Leadership Advisory Team at the University of Southern Maine, the Maine Children’s Alliance and the Office of Child and Family Services in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Gov. Paul LePage, who experienced physical abuse, homelessness and informal foster placement as a youngster, was one of several featured speakers. LePage opened his talk by delivering his now-familiar 10-word motivational motto: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”
“That is not to mean you go at it alone,” he said. “But if you’re going to make something of yourselves, if you’re going to achieve, it is up to you.”
LePage, the second oldest of 18 children, expressed appreciation for the adults who helped him as he grew up in Lewiston. Two different families took him in while he finished high school, he told his audience, and former state Sen. Peter Snowe, the late husband of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, helped him apply to college and helped pay his tuition.
While these adults provided essential support and encouragement, LePage said it was his own determination to succeed that drove him into successful careers in business and public service.
“Like many of you, I’ve had a challenging beginning,” LePage said. “It’s all about playing the cards you’re dealt.”
Shaune Johnson and Robert Ortega, charismatic young “foster care alumni” from Pittsburg, Pa., and Denver, Colo., respectively, urged the Maine teens to make positive commitments to themselves as they go forward. The young men are members of FosterClub, a national organization that aims to motivate young people in the foster care system.
“Just to hear someone say they made it through would have made me feel more motivated,” said Johnson, 20, during an interview before the conference opened. He said there are many organizations and individuals looking to make a difference in the lives of young people in foster care. “It’s like there’s a group of angels out there waiting to help you out. You just have to find them,” he said.
The conference was emceed by Shannon Jacobson, 19, of Limington and Joshua Calcia, 20, of Kennebunk. Jacobson, who is studying sociology and legal studies at the University of Maine, said recent changes in Maine foster placement policy allowed her and her two sisters to be cared for by an aunt in her father’s home rather than being placed with strangers when their father was incarcerated. That kind of family-oriented policy reflects the needs of children and families, she said. Teens “aging out” of foster care should be encouraged to advocate with the system, she said, to continue to protect the interests of children in foster care.
Calcia, who will study computer technology next fall at Southern Maine Community College, said he was “tossed from home to home” after being placed in foster care when he was 10.
He said the annual teen conference is a good opportunity for teens in foster care to meet each other, explore available resources — such as job training and college tuition assistance — and get involved in advocacy. In recognition of his personal achievements and advocacy, Calcia on Wednesday was awarded the 2011 Brad Levesque Youth Leadership Award, named for a youngster from Maine who spent several years in foster care and died of cancer in 1996.
There are about 1,400 children under 18 in the legal custody of the state of Maine. The state provides financial and other support to another 3,600 youngsters who are being cared for by family members or other nonparental guardians. Some young adults can take advantage of the federally funded V-9 Extended Care program, which provides continued support for individuals over 18 in some circumstances.