Imagine being a foster child ready to “age out” of the system and begin to live on your own. You may have little to no family support that you can rely on. Everything you’ve known prior to this is about to change. There will be no more visits with the social workers in your home to check on you and make sure you’re okay, or ask if you need anything. You have to worry about graduating from high school, figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your life, find a place to live as soon as you turn 18, as well as a million other tasks. As you can see, this is a time of extreme stress and anxiety for these youth. This is why foster parents have such an important and difficult job; they’re the most vital people to help prepare these youth to begin their adult lives.
Stacie and Paul Nikolaus have been working with teenagers in treatment foster care for the past 20+ years, and they have a solid understanding of the importance of preparation for life after foster care. They have prepared youth for a number of different independent living opportunities, such as entering the military or Job Cops and have connected them to other programs available to former foster kids. Specifically they help the youth open bank accounts, save money, find employment, obtain a driver’s license/state ID; they teach them how to cook, do laundry and grocery shop, and they advocate for services needed to help ensure a successful transition from foster care.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Nikolauses in helping a youth in their home transition to college out of state. This young man, who we’ll call Ken, had a lot of motivation and follow-through to reach his goal of attending college, and with the supportive help of the Nikolauses, he was able to succeed. The process of getting Ken to college, however, was a bit of a learning curve for everyone, including me. Ken’s foster care team was able to work together and make a game plan, starting by breaking down tasks into small steps. First, Ken had to take the ACT and fill out his application. Once he was accepted, financial aid became the main focus: applying for scholarships, grants, and completing the necessary paperwork.
Paul and Stacie became an advocate for Ken, steering him toward Lad Lake’s Connections program, to find additional resources to help him pay for college and housing. At the last home visit before Stacie drove Ken to college, the team celebrated, with the Ongoing Case Manager bringing cupcakes. You could tell that Ken was both excited and nervous about the move. His team was very encouraging and supportive, realizing that this was a big step for him. This last visit was bittersweet for me, as it was sad to say goodbye, but at the same time, I was very proud and excited for him to begin a new chapter in his life.
Stacie drove Ken to school not only to provide transportation, but most importantly, to give him a sense that he was not alone in this new chapter of this life. She and Paul helped provide kitchenware, silverware, bedding, cleaning supplies, toiletries, etc., for his new apartment.
Ken may have transitioned to college, and the couple said their goodbyes, but they continue to remain in contact with him, as well as other foster children who have aged out of their home over the years. Ken and the others have known that they become a part of the Nikolaus family, and just because they left the home, that did not change.
This entire process helped me to realize how important the role of the foster parent is in preparing the youth we work with to live independently. Without the hard work and dedication foster parents such as Paul and Stacie put in with Ken, many of our youth would be set up for failure. It can be difficult enough being 18 and trying to be responsible enough to take care of yourself. Any way to make this transition easier for them to be successful in society as an adult is critical.
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