EvCC program helps former foster kids beat the odds
He is well along on a road to success, but there have been rough patches.
Startzman, 20, was a foster child, along with his now 18-year-old brother, Alex, who starts at EvCC in the fall.
Zack was 11 when he and Alex were removed from their home. They came to live with their grandparents, Irene and Bradley Gilbert, of Arlington. Irene Bradley took classes to formally become their foster parent.
The boys had support from the state, but the Gilberts took on the heavy lifting of parenthood -- and also experienced the joys. Irene Gilbert is 70, and her husband is 75.
"We are so proud of Zack," his grandmother said Friday. "Zack and I have laughed about how we are two generations apart."
She remembers sitting through Startzman's taekwondo classes, going to school events, and checking homework. "We've done everything parents would do," she said.
"I got really lucky," said Startzman, a 2010 graduate of Arlington High School.
Along with his grandparents' love and support, Startzman has been helped by college programs that serve students who have been in foster care.
He was one of about 25 former foster youth in a program this year called EvCC Connect. Linda Summers, the program's educational planner and coordinator, said EvCC Connect offers support services, giving former foster children a better shot at achieving academic goals.
She said that about 500 young people age out of foster care in Washington each year. "Without significant intervention, fewer than 2 percent of foster youth are likely to attain a bachelor's degree," Summers said.
The state provides financial help for college students previously in foster care. In 2007, Summers said, the Legislature established the Washington Student Achievement Council Passport for Foster Youth Promise program. It awards up to $4,500 each academic year to eligible students attending community colleges or universities.
Statewide, Summers said, 400 students received Passport scholarships this year.
"Zack will be the first student on our campus to graduate with a Passport scholarship," Summers said. "He started here in fall 2010 and has been really inspiring. He is a great role model for other students to see what is possible."
In a separate program, Startzman is employed on campus as a peer mentor for students formerly in foster care. That job is through the College Success Foundation, an Issaquah-based nonprofit group helping students who have been in foster care.
Startzman's efforts aren't all related to helping with schoolwork. Part of keeping students engaged is helping them feel comfortable at college. That can come from just meeting a friend.
"I've done different sorts of stuff -- resume workshops, but also taking everyone out for dinner or bowling. We want students to have friends on campus," said Startzman, who has commuted to EvCC from his grandparents' rural Arlington home.
He said many who were once in foster care struggle mightily. "The vast majority of these students are out on their own. They have to work a lot of hours," he said. "They are 18, 19, and working as hard as anyone twice their age, making barely any money and putting themselves through school."
Startzman worked at an outlet mall clothing store, but quit to devote more time to school. He knows how fortunate he has been living with his grandparents, and having their encouragement as he goes to college.
He remembers the transition of moving from Marysville to Arlington in middle school. "A lot of these kids can't look back, they don't want to," he said. "They're looking forward."
For Startzman, who is earning an associate's degree in philosophy, looking forward means a possible career working with nonprofit organizations. He will have grants and scholarships at Evergreen, but knows self-sufficiency is a must.
"It's something we realized and Zack realizes as he has grown up. He does not have parents to fall back on. He needs to be able to support himself," Irene Gilbert said. "It's time for him to be able to go, to have some independence. I feel confident he can do it.
"They've been a blessing to us," Gilbert said of her grandsons. "We'll really miss him."
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about the Everett Community College Connect program that helps students who have been in foster care, email Linda Summers: email@example.com
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