MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County has around 1,600 foster children, and as they age out of the system, many of them wonder what will happen next.
Many want to go to college, but that poses big challenges. Youth Villages wants to provide those children with a safety net so they can get post-secondary schooling for either two or four years.
“I’m really looking forward to making my life how I always wanted it to be," 19-year-old Carlos Santana said. “It’s really big for me to go to college and do what I want to do."
Santana has never had complete control of his life, until now.
He was in foster care until he was 1 and then was adopted.
"Many people think once you get adopted, all the problems end there. Sometimes they don’t," he said.
Santana said he bounced between five different high schools before he graduated.
“Our family has a lot of mental illness and things, but to see my older sister make something of herself, it really was a testament I could make something of myself," he said.
That’s how Santana ended up here with other students from West Tennessee and around the country. They’re all young adults who were in foster care at one point but are now part of the Youth Villages Scholar Program, which prepares and gives them a support network as they enter college.
“They are taught a multitude of skills including budgeting and scheduling," Youth Villages Clinical Director Kristin Landers said.
Officials say less than 5 percent of former foster children actually graduate, but Youth Villages officials say their success rate is at 48 percent.
Santana said he’ll be one of the successes.
"I’m the second person in my biological family to attend a university, and I feel like I have a responsibility for myself, my little sister and anybody in Youth Villages, anybody in the system, I have to be a beacon for them," Santana said.
Santana starts at the University of Memphis in just a few weeks. He wants to study to be a surgeon.
Youth Villages' scholar program serves about 100 kids. They have two three-day training sessions, one in Bartlett, and the other in Knoxville.