Aurand, Lisa. ThisWeek, May 12, 2010.
When Lisa Dickson "aged out" of foster care at 16, she had a myriad of people who became her advocates.
The list included the English teacher who wrote a "rousing" recommendation for her college acceptance, the University of Kentucky admissions counselor who marched her over to financial aid and said, "This girl needs grants," the residents of the Methodist dormitory who became her "family" when she moved in after a year of homelessness.
Now Lisa is fighting for other foster care alumni to have the same chances at success she did.
"The people who were there for me are what motivate me," Dickson said. "All the things that I do now are because of them."
Dickson was named one of four Foster Care Alumni of America Volunteers of the Year in this, the awards' first year. She was a founding member of the group, and is the communications chair for its Ohio Chapter.
She was in foster care in Kentucky from ages 12 to 16 after her mother died, and was able to start classes at the University of Kentucky at age 16.
By 17, Dickson was homeless, but still attending college. It wasn't until she was 18 that she began living in the Methodist dormitory. She tried five different majors and was in college for 10 years, finishing by earning a master's degree in library science.
She was offered a job in Columbus in 1999, met and married her husband, Nathan Dickson, in 2000. They moved to Westerville in 2001, where they live with his two daughters, Rachel, 19, and Carly, 17.
Dickson, a Children's Librarian, said she spends about 40 hours a week volunteering for FCAA. The local chapter focuses on assisting the approximately 1,300 Ohio youths who age out of foster care each year.
"The top two things we do are connect and transform," she said.
The group helps foster care alumni connect with other former foster children, wherever they live.
For the past several years, the group has hosted an annual Thanksgiving dinner, an event that began when foster alumni from all over the country met in Washington, D.C., to talk to federal legislators about federal child welfare financial reform.
"We said we were coming home for the holidays," Dickson said.
The "transform" part of the group's mission involves lobbying on behalf of foster children making the transition to life on their own. Dickson was one of several foster care alumni who testified in front of the state legislature last year, asking members not to cut funding for programs that teach older foster care children how to live on their own.
Though the funding was approved by the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate, it was vetoed by Gov. Ted Strickland, Dickson said. But one good thing came out of that news: Dickson and a few of her colleagues were asked to be part of Strickland's Taskforce for Youth and Young Adults in Transition.
The two biggest needs for fosters in transition are housing and health insurance, Dickson said.
"One in four homeless adults is a former foster," she said.
Even those who end up going to college still struggle with housing and finances, she said.
"Most college kids, when they have (financial) trouble, they call mom and dad. But there is no mom and dad to call (for foster children)," Dickson said.
And though the recently passed federal health care bill will eventually mandate insurance for former fosters, that coverage won't take effect until 2014, she said.
Dickson, who recently was engaged as FCAA's volunteer social media coordinator, said she won't stop her quest to help fosters the way others helped her.
"I love the kicking-butt part and trying to make a difference," she said. "(The people who helped me) were there for me and cared for me. I want that for everyone."