It was 20 years ago that Wayne State University senior Markita Terry last saw her biological mother.
Although a drug addiction had forced the woman to surrender custody of Markita, she had stayed in contact with her baby girl as best she could — through spot visits and brief meet-ups.
“I had been placed in a foster home when I was 4 after my mom got into a fight with a woman we were living with,” recalled Markita. “The police had been called and they took my mom to jail. They took me to an agency, then to an emergency foster home.
“They told me I’d only be there for 72 hours, until my mom got out of jail. I wound up staying for the next four years.”
The first year was rough, but Markita found joy and solace in weekly opportunities to meet up with her mom at a Detroit social services center. Whatever her struggles, Markita’s mom always kept their dates.
Until one day, she didn’t.
“One day I saw her, and the next day was a family fun fair,” recalled Markita. “I remember asking her if she’d be at the fair tomorrow. She was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be there.’ So I went to the fair with the people in the foster home, and I remember sitting in this metal folding chair, waiting at the front gate of the fair for my mom to come. And she never came. To this day, it hurts like hell.”
And with that, young Markita Terry — whose father had moved to California with her brothers several months before — lost her last tie to her biological family and tumbled headlong into the state foster care system for more than a decade.
But despite spending her adolescence and turbulent teen years bouncing between multiple foster homes, dealing at times with instability, neglect and even abuse, she has soldiered on. Through it all — the loss of her mom, the birth of her own daughter, a brief move to Los Angeles to reunite with her father and siblings — the irrepressible communications major still found herself walking across the stage at the Wayne State graduation ceremony at Ford Field in May. This summer, Markita traveled to Italy through a WSU Study Abroad program.
While her success in Wayne State’s College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts is unquestionably a testament to her personal perseverance, Markita will be the first to admit that she couldn’t have made it through on her own. For all of her determination, Markita got a big helping hand, much of it from the Champions Aspiring to Make Pathways to Success program, or CHAMPS, a cutting-edge Wayne State effort to ferry students who’ve gone through foster care through college and to graduation. (The name of the program was formally changed from TIP, or Transition to Independence Program, over the summer.)
Airika Buford, the communications and outreach coordinator for CHAMPS, was perhaps the most instrumental university staffer in Markita’s orbit, and their relationship illustrates just how deeply the program embeds itself in students’ lives. Hired into the School of Social Work not long after Markita enrolled at Wayne State, Buford formed a fast bond with the then-sophomore.
“There was an immediate connection,” said Buford. “I loved her bubbly personality. I admired the fact that she’s a single mom and was trying to pursue her degree at the time. Any way that I could, either within the program or by reaching out to community resources, I tried to make sure I found additional support for her. I tried to communicate with her whenever she came in to the office just to find out how she was doing. Those are things I would do with all of our students — but there was just something different there. Markita has a personality that you can’t help but to love. Despite whatever is going on with her, she’s always wearing a smile. I just took a liking to her and just tried to make sure I looked out for her.”
In fact, CHAMPS has been looking out for students like Markita since its inception.
Run out of an unassuming office on the first floor of 5425 Woodward Ave., which sits adjacent to the Wayne State School of Social Work, the CHAMPS program has over its six-year existence become something of a safe haven for numerous Wayne State students who, like Markita, are healing from the struggles of turbulent upbringings in the state foster care system. Overseen largely by Judith Wineman, a lecturer in the School of Social Work, and Buford, CHAMPS furnishes a slew of wraparound services designed to help buoy students above the financial instability, housing insecurity and deeply rooted social challenges that confront almost all of them.
CHAMPS students receive up to $5,000 in financial assistance each year, with every student receiving some level of funding. Students are also eligible for tutoring, career mentoring, life-skills training and help managing their foster-care cases. CHAMPS offers counseling for troubled students. The program has even allocated a small pool of money for student emergency funds, enabling CHAMPS a degree of flexibility to address specific student issues as they arise.
“CHAMPS tries to fill in the gaps and meet the needs of our students,” explained Buford. “Any services that our students need, our program either creates or partners with other programs or service providers to ensure that processes are as streamlined and effective as possible. Our students face enough challenges. We want to reduce those challenges, not compound them.”
The program was started in 2012 in response to a growing body of research that showed that foster children in Michigan had almost no chance to make it to, or through, college. Studies done in the past six years show that about 10 percent of foster children enroll in college — with only about 3 percent ever earning a degree.
Worse, figures show that 60 percent of foster children who don’t attend college wind up sentenced to jail time, 40 percent experience either housing instability or outright homelessness, and less than half land employment.
CHAMPS has been fighting against those trends since its inception, waging its battle by working with large groups of students as well as one enrollee at a time.
“In the short term, we want to ensure that we maintain a strong mental health support for our students,” said Buford. “Our program has done a great job of creating a partnership with the College of Education so that our students can receive services in a trusted space: our office and drop-in center. I think that this partnership has been very effective for students who have taken advantage of it.
“For long-term goals, we have to meet the financial needs of the program and of our students who are over 21 by creating a diversified funding strategy.”
And all along the way, the program is propping up students who might otherwise falter, not because they want to but because they often don’t know how to negotiate a path to success by themselves.
“One of the biggest problems with being a foster kid going to college is the lack of support,” said Markita. “A lot of people have a mom and dad to be there if you get kicked out of the dorm room or don’t have anywhere to live. For former foster youth, you don’t have that… And coming out of foster care, you’re dealing with a lot of mental issues. You’re dealing with rejection, abandonment, with so many issues that aren’t dealt with for the most part.
“I’m not saying all foster kids are like that, but for the most part, because the foster care system is screwed up, it tends to screw up the people who come out of it even more because we aren’t getting all the help that we need. We don’t learn how to ask for that help. CHAMPS gives us that sense of belonging, that sense of support that most foster youth lack.”
And CHAMPS is looking to grow not just its target group but the full university population. Wineman notes that CHAMPS is looking to help the university create pathways for a broad diversity of students, beyond even just foster care youth.
“We’re looking at research into a functioning model for how to serve anybody who wants to come to this university and at how to support their success,” said Wineman. “It could take a long time to happen, but for us, that’s really big.”
Meanwhile, as CHAMPS continues to see positive outcomes, it’s earned broader support from the university community.
“Wayne State University’s School of Social Work and the Corporate and Foundations Relations department meet with our staff regularly to strategize and take advantage of any funding opportunities that are available and aligned with our mission,” Buford said. “The administration and staff at the School of Social Work have been a tremendous support in ensuring that we have what we need for day-to-day operations. And the Office of the Provost has been integral in offering retention support for our older students. Without the support of the Associate Provost’s office, many of our students would not be able to continue or to be as successful as they are.”
Buford and Wineman pointed out that, while other universities may have programs for foster care youth, few integrate those services into the overall college experience. In that regard, Wayne State — and CHAMPS — stands out.
“My advice for foster care students who want to attend college is to make sure you are informed,” said Buford. “Although there are plenty of resources for foster youth for post-secondary education, it is not free. The cost can be minimal but ask all of those questions before selecting a school.
“Wayne State is a great option because of campus support programs such as ours. I provide presentations for students, workers and guardians so they can get a personalized feel for what our program and Wayne have to offer. So many students have changed their outlook because of the experience. If the university as a whole does not meet the student’s needs then they are less likely to be successful — and that’s the complete opposite that anyone should want for our future leaders. We want our students and graduates to be Warrior Strong.”
And for many of those successful Wayne State students who’ve teetered between triumph and trauma, for young people like Markita Terry and many others, CHAMPS has often provided the winning edge.