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Summit Helps Foster Kids Launch Into Adulthood

Kassidy Geehan speaks at the Reach Higher Summit in Helena, June 2019. Geehan was able to enroll in college after getting scholarship help from last year's summit.
Jon Ebelt, Montana DPHHS

Life isn’t easy for kids in foster care. They’re often separated from their parents for reasons they don’t understand, and can bounce around a lot through different foster homes and schools. That can make it tough for them to go to college. The state health department has an annual event to help foster kids succeed as adults. Montana Public Radio’s Eric Whitney met one young woman the event really worked for.

The state of Montana removed Kassidy Geehan and her sister from their home when Kassidy was 16. She doesn’t really like to talk about the details, but said her mom had some demons.

"And sometimes those demons just come out, and it just overtook, and it was a leading domino effect. And one thing led to another, and it led to me and my sister being in danger," she says.

Kassidy and her sister got placed in what’s called kinship care, that’s when a relative takes over as a foster parent. In this case, it was their only relative in the state, a cousin. Kassidy says it was a better place for them to be, but, "Unfortunately, me going into senior year of high school, I wasn’t going to transfer to a different school. Living with my cousin I was an hour away from Billings."

Determined to go to college, Geehan now had to navigate new challenges, including stigma.

"When teachers found out I was a foster kid, they looked at me differently. They thought, 'oh, she’s not going to college, she’s not going to be able to do this.' Sometimes I was like, even neglected, like, I wasn’t getting as much help as the other kids, because they’re thinking,'she’s a foster kid, she doesn’t care about school, she’s probably going to be delinquent.' Like, that’s not OK, especially for a teacher or somebody youth look up to. That’s not OK."

Also not OK? Kassidy didn’t have enough money for college.

"That’s a constant fear, is just being in debt right away. And so I told myself if I wasn’t going have my college paid off, or at least half of it, I wasn’t going to go. Because, again, I don’t want that debt."

Luckily, Montana has this thing called the Reach Higher Summit. Every year, for the last 14 years, the state health department teams up with a non-profit called Reach Higher Montana to put on a week-long meeting for foster kids who are approaching age 18 to help them launch successfully into adulthood.

The summits rotate around college campuses in the state; this years’ was at Carroll College in Helena. The woman leading the discussion with about 60 kids here is Kelly Cresswell, executive director of Reach Higher.

"At the summit we have youth from all across Montana who have experience in the foster care system and want to put together a plan for what comes next for them," Cresswell says. "So some of these students are college bound, some are going to head into the workforce. This week they were exposed to all kinds of opportunities for what comes next. So, college is an option for many of them, we have funding to help them pay for college. We also have funding and support to help them pursue other options that may not be a traditional two year or four year degree, if that’s their desire."

Kassidy Geehan applied and was selected for the summit last year. They helped her find enough scholarship money to pay for her first year of college, and now she’s a freshman at MSU in Bozeman.

"I’m taking the pre-med intake, but I’m double majoring in microbiology and immunology, and minoring in political science. I have no social life (laughs)."

Geehan says it feels pretty good to be pursuing her college dream after feeling the stigma and low expectations that can come with the foster kid label. And she was happy to be invited back to the Reach Higher Summit this year to help the young people coming up after her.

"It’s really awesome not only being a role model to so many youth here, but also being a role model to my sister that’s here. It’s like a proud big sister moment, that I’m helping other people. Like, hey, do this. Go to college. You don’t have to stay in that town if you don’t like to be in that town. Like, go out, make your story. This is your life."

Learn more about Reach Higher Montana.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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