Every month, Shirley Delorme Russell gives $37 to the Youth in Care Scholarship Fund.
It’s a coincidence that 37 is the number of scholarships she applied for when she started university, but no accident that today she gives back to the one that helped her through five years of post-secondary education.
The scholarship fund, held at The Winnipeg Foundation, helps Manitobans who are, or have been, in foster care. Voices: Manitoba’s Youth in Care Network oversees the scholarship along with support and advocacy for young people who have been in foster care.
Ms. Delorme Russell says the support was “huge. Absolutely huge.”
The first scholarship connected her to Voices, which in turn introduced her to other awards that would help her as she earned two degrees. She also got involved in Voices’ peer support group, where she formed strong bonds with other students who, like herself, had lived in foster care.
The group offered a welcome chance to talk about the excitement and stresses of university with people who already understood the challenges inherent in coming from care.
“It really was a place where we could just be us. It wasn’t about having to explain your whole story before people get to know you,” she says.
Ms. Delorme Russell entered foster care when she was 14. She had always dreamed of being a teacher and she excelled academically throughout high school. But, when she graduated, she didn’t even see post-secondary as an option.
“I was in an advanced program at a strong academic school and nobody, nobody asked me if I wanted to apply for Queen’s or Notre Dame or the U of M or UBC. Nobody asked me, not my foster mom or my social worker. Nobody suggested that I might want to go to university or college. Nobody.”
And her experience wasn’t unique.
“There aren’t high expectations around foster kids in general,” she says. “Now I’ll say in general, because there are a lot of foster parents out there who are excellent and expect good things of their kids, but in general, I’d say, ‘Oh you dropped out? That’s because you’re a foster kid.’ ‘Oh, you’re pregnant already? Well, you are a foster kid, right?’ ‘You got into trouble with the law or with drugs or with drinking? That’s what happens, you’re a product of the system.’ So people don’t have a lot of high expectations, including the expectation to go to post-secondary.”
Ms. Delorme Russell considers herself lucky that her birthday is in the fall. It meant she was able to graduate from high school before turning 18, when she was had to leave the foster care system and head out on her own.
“They just stopped giving me cheques from CFS and brought me to the social assistance office,” she says. “So, I went and I found myself a job, but why did nobody offer [to] help me with that or say ‘what do you want to do with the rest of your life, my girl? OK, you’re going to have to pay rent, so let’s figure that out.’ It’s a little bit tricky if nobody cares about you as their kid.”
So, she went to work and later married, bought a house and had two children. At age 28, she started university.
“I had worked very, very hard to build a stable life for myself, that wasn’t the life I had come from,” she says. “So, by the time I was 28, I was well set into that stability, but I had no money to go.”
She applied relentlessly for scholarships, eventually earning almost $20,000 through the Youth In Care Scholarship and, later, others as well. She studied Aboriginal languages and history and earned both a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education.
Today, Ms. Delorme Russell puts all that to work as Cultural and Educational Resources Coordinator the Louis Riel Institute, where she has worked since 2007. The organization, affiliated with the Manitoba Métis Federation, promotes the history, culture, heritage and education of Métis people.
Her job includes helping Métis students access money for post-secondary education. She provides the support she wishes she had received at a young age.
“My own experience means that I understand that there can be a stigma about being from foster care. And I don’t care. I don’t care if you’re blue with seven eyeballs, it’s my job to help you find money to pay for school. And hey, if you were in foster care, cool, now we’ve got this other path we can go down.”
“Voices, Manitoba’s Youth in Care Network does so much more than just give money. They really give hope and connections,” she says.
What is a Scholarship Fund?
Scholarship Funds generate annual awards for students. Donors who start funds may choose the scholarship criteria (for example: academic achievement, exceptional community service, financial need), schools that benefit, and areas of study.
For more information about starting, or giving to, a Scholarship Fund, call 204.944.9474 or visit http://www.wpgfdn.org/