Program helps foster dreams

But for years the dream seemed out of reach. Not only had Melton spent more than half her life in foster care; she was yet to find the kind of career that would fund those dreams.

Thanks to the Metropolitan Atlanta Youth Opportunities Initiative, a program of the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta and other partners, Melton’s dreams are being realized.

She was able to save nearly $3,000 for a down payment on a Sandy Springs townhome, and the initiative matched her savings dollar for dollar up to $1,000.

Under the initiative, current and former foster care children such as Melton are taught financial skills they need to navigate through life — skills most young adults learn from parents, older siblings or family friends.

Studies show that more than one-third of young adults who age out of foster care have no high school diploma or GED — compared with 10 percent of their peers. Also, nearly half the women studied were pregnant by age 19, 30 percent of the men had been incarcerated at least once and only 46 percent had a savings or checking account.

Through a series of classes and other support, this program brings participants ages 14 to 21 up to speed on all things financial — from opening a checking account to starting their own small businesses.

“What they save,” said Tyronda Minter, manager of the Atlanta initiative, “we match it dollar for dollar.”

The matching money comes from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, the private group that funds the savings program.

A study released just days ago by Casey found that more than 3,000 teens in or recently out of foster care nationally have saved some $3.1 million since the program was launched five years ago.

“What we set out to demonstrate against a lot of skepticism was that foster children who have lots of needs could save and use that money for things that would build their future — education, a down payment on a home or buy a car,” said Gary Stangler, the foundation’s executive director.

The surprising thing, Stangler said, was that kids who had faced the most serious challenges — like those who had been homeless at some point or single parents — were the best savers.

For Melton, who went into foster care because her mother was unable to care for her and her three siblings, the initiative made the difference between hoping for and attaining her goals.

Ditto, said Felicia Evans, who hopes to purchase a car later this year with her savings.

Evans, 21, who spent 10 years in foster care, has to take a bus and train from her Stone Mountain apartment to downtown Atlanta, where she works and attends Georgia State University.

“That means leaving home at the crack of dawn and returning home late in the evenings,” she said.

Since enrolling in the program, both women said they’ve learned plenty about the importance of working hard and saving.

Whenever they were lucky enough to get a paycheck or birthday present, they said they learned to pay themselves first.

Before opening her account, Evans said she never saved. “I’d spend money on the dumbest things. Now I’m a lot more responsible.”

She has amassed $3,000 and counting.

Melton is one of three former foster care youths to buy homes under the savings plans, Minter said. The most popular purchase has been cars.

Since launching the program in 2003, Minter said, 225 foster care youths have participated in the local pilot program and saved more than $57,000.

Through a partnership with the state Department of Human Resources and Sun Trust Bank, the program recently expanded statewide, she said.

Melton was attending an independent living meeting in 2005 when she learned about the initiative and decided to attend a meeting.

“I was like, wow, this is right up my alley,” she recalled the other day.

Like the majority of Americans, Melton had long wanted to own her own home but didn’t have the know-how or the money she needed to get there.

Armed with the information she’d gained in the financial literacy classes, she was able to determine what she could afford, what upkeep would cost and what neighborhood would provide the best school for her children, ages 2 and 8.

She found the perfect home in a Sandy Springs subdivision and last September the three of them moved in.

“I’m a goal-oriented person. I get off the road occasionally, but I always get back on,” said Melton, whose high school career was almost derailed when she became pregnant in 12th grade.

Determined not to become another statistic, Melton said, “I went to each of my teachers and asked what I had to do to make up the work.”

She graduated on schedule in 2001 from Benjamin E. Mays High School. In 2006, she earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering technology.

Her mission accomplished, she has set her sights on bigger things.

“I want to be a lawyer,” Melton said, her eyes dancing. “I’m still dreaming.”

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