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Foster youth graduates in Clark County show their resilience

Clark County’s foster youth graduates are heading off to college, careers and even the U.S. Navy’s nuclear engineering program, despite a pandemic that closed schools for nearly three months.

COVID-19 and school closures didn’t deter many would-be graduates in the foster care system, according to Lisa Martinez, who oversees the independent living program at the Clark County Department of Family Services. Of approximately 100 seniors in the program, 75 graduated, she said, the exact same number as last year.

“It shows how resilient youth in foster care are,” she said. “They were already facing challenges and barriers before everything had to go virtual.”

Martinez said the department was able to provide laptops to students for distance learning, thanks to a grant, and continue its independent living classes online. On Wednesday, staff also handed out gift bags to graduates, as well as donations of dorm and independent living supplies.

Needed now are more families who are willing to take in older foster youth, Martinez said, in order to allow them to live in a home environment during pivotal years of their development and education. Foster youth in general tend to experience frequent education disruptions, studies have found, leading to lower graduation rates.

“We really need foster parents, especially for older kids and sibling groups,” she said, pointing interested parties to the countmein.vegas website.

The pandemic canceled plans like prom and college tours, and disrupted the routines of students like Arbor View High School graduate Joselyn Smith, who said she was typically on campus from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. for clubs and activities. She said she found out schools would close while in the middle of a band concert.

“I almost started crying, but I know it was for the safety of everyone,” she said.

Her foster parent Tami Soudbakhsh said despite the disruption, Smith earned straight A’s and four graduation honor cords, and had a mini-prom at home. Looking ahead, Smith said she’s planning to enroll at the University of Nevada, Reno with intentions to study psychology and communications, adding that she’d like to be on campus for classes.

“I’m looking forward to growing into a different person. I’d like to use my voice,” she said. “And I don’t think I could have done it without my current home.”

For Nevada State High School graduate Jaden Hines, the pandemic didn’t cause much disruption, since many of his classes were already online, he said. As a result of the program, Hines will now enroll at UNLV with two associate’s degrees already under his belt, adding that he felt motivated to take on the additional work in pursuit of his future ambitions.

“I was willing to put in the hours,” he said.

Hines said he’s planning to pursue a career in social work inspired by his foster parent, who earned both a bachelor’s and master’s in social work while Hines was in his care, as well as his own social workers and therapists.

After college, he said he’d like to work with kids in foster care, with his own experiences as a guide.

“I’m not going to pretend like it’s easy, but you should never give up,” Hines said. “Don’t let statistics say you can’t.”

Contact Aleksandra Appleton at 702-383-0218 or aappleton @reviewjournal.com. Follow @aleksappleton on Twitter.

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